Did anyone expect that the Utah State Aggies basketball team, which turned over its entire coaching staff, athletic director and every scoring player from last year’s squad, would open this season with a historic 11-1 start?
If there were any believers, Danny Sprinkle, the head coach of the Aggies who is just 12 games into his tenure, was not one of them.
“I would have sent you to the psych ward if you’d told me that in October,” Sprinkle said in jest.
Nevertheless, Utah State scratched, clawed and utterly slogged its way to that 11th win in an improbable 54-53 defensive mud fight against San Francisco at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies’ 11-1 start is the fourth in school history and further extended Sprinkle’s run as the best start for a first-year head coach in Aggie history.
Hope for Utah State dwindled after a go-ahead 3-pointer from USF’s Malik Thomas with 37 seconds remaining, and Aggie guard Darius Brown’s iso jumper missed wide.
Just under the basket with under 20 seconds left, however, was junior forward Kalifa Sakho, who wildly tipped the ball back up with all the control of a volleyball bump. The ball then kissed the high end of the backboard and dropped in for what would be the game-winning shot.
It was the kind of game where the box score afterward is tough to look at. The Aggies, who ranked 10th in the nation in field-goal percentage coming into the contest, couldn’t buy a basket throughout the game. They finished shooting 30.2% from the field and an unsightly 9.5% from the 3-point line, the Aggies’ lowest 3-point percentage in a single game since March 10, 2022.
How do you win a game like that? You play Danny Sprinkle’s kind of defense. On the other side of the court, Utah State forced 17 turnovers, including 12 steals, and held the Dons to 40.4% from the field while only conceding a limited number of shooting fouls as the Dons hit 6 of 10 from the free-throw line.
“Heck of an effort by our guys, to shoot 30% from the field and 9% from three and still beat a really good San Francisco team,” Sprinkle said. “Defensively, that’s probably the best team we’ve played, and we knew it. … They’re in the top 20 in all their defensive metrics for a reason.”
The low-scoring affair was a tough one to endure for fans traveling from Cache Valley, but it was a fun one for a defensive-minded Sprinkle.
“I love this stuff,” Sprinkle said. “This is like ‘three yards and a cloud of dust.’ … I love it. It’s not fun to go through for a 40-minute game, but we’ve been scoring off our defense. That’s what we’ve been showing guys in film.”
The free-throw line was largely a saving grace for the Aggies as they forced contact on USF’s physical defensive style enough to finish with a 20-27 clip from the line, the only really significant advantage USU held over the visiting team.
“I knew it’d be a struggle,” Sprinkle said. “I didn’t know it’d be that hard to score.”
Ultimately, the Aggies had to win in a way they hadn’t really had to up to this point in the season: lock in on defense and be extremely tough.
“I firmly believe that you can coach toughness,” Sprinkle said. “Even the guys that may not be that tough, you can make them tough.”
With 15 seconds remaining, USF went down the court and immediately tried for a go-ahead midrange jumper that fell short. The Aggies couldn’t quite secure the possession as Brown hit the out of bounds line while reeling in the ball, which gave San Francisco one more shot with 6 seconds to go.
The Dons inbounded to their leading scorer, Jonathan Mogbo, who finished with 14 points. Mogbo drove inward with Brown on defense, and Brown, the much shorter player of the two, knocked the ball loose for a game-sealing steal.
It wasn’t the kind of game where you’d expect to see someone finish with 20 points, but the run of success by senior Utah transfer Ian Martinez continued as he finished with a game-high 20 points on 5-13 shooting, a relatively good clip all things considered.
When the Aggies were down 46-50, Martinez drained two free throws, then put in a highly contested layup to tie the game with just under two minutes to go, firing up a Delta Center crowd that filled roughly half of the lower bowl.
“He’s just a big-time player, man,” Sprinkle said. “He’s just a big-time athlete. He can score it. It doesn’t matter how you guard him. He can still get a shot off.”
The Aggies will be back at home (their real home) on Dec. 22 to host East Tennessee in Utah State’s final nonconference game of the season.