Cold-starting Utah State muscles past Boise State and into another Mountain West championship game
Max Shulga scored 19 points and USU overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to run away from the Broncos in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — A bunch of impersonators dressed in black basketball jerseys took over the basketball court at the Thomas & Mack Center late Friday night in the first half of the Mountain West Conference semifinal between heated rivals Utah State and Boise State.
They weren’t dressed like Elvis, Spiderman or the Statue of Liberty, but they kind of played like those characters often found happily posing for photographs on the nearby Las Vegas Strip — for a small donation, of course.
“Champions always answer. That’s Aggie basketball.” — Utah State guard Steven Ashworth.
Some how, some way, the Aggies returned to their real selves in the second half — after hearing coach Ryan Odom’s passionate halftime locker room plea to “Be Us” — and eventually rolled past the Broncos 72-62 to advance to Saturday’s championship game.
Third-seeded Utah State (26-7) will face top-seeded San Diego State (26-6) at 4 p.m. MST for the crown and the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, although both squad are seemingly assured a spot in the Big Dance if the latest bracketology projections are accurate.
The Aggies certainly passed the eye test Friday — at least in the second half.
“We were very fortunate to be where we were at at halftime.” Odom said.
Indeed, the Aggies looked nothing like the team that was one of the best 3-point shooting clubs in the country this season in the first 20 minutes, continually rushing long shots and misfiring on nearly all of them. Utah State missed its first six 3-pointers and was 1 of 12 from beyond the arc before Steven Ashworth hit a couple back-to-back to restore order.
Boise State led 36-28 at halftime, having turned 10 USU turnovers into 13 points. Unlike a lot of characters and establishments in Sin City, Utah State was being generous to a fault.
Then the Aggies turned the tables in the second half, while still in the black jerseys that Aggie fans have come to believe are cursed. Those fans probably have differing opinions on the outfits now, after USU outscored BSU 44-26 in the second half.
“Champions always answer,” said Ashworth, who finished with 14 points on 4 of 13 shooting. “That’s Aggie basketball.”
This time, the catalyst for the comeback was not the steady Ashworth, but fellow guards Max Shulga and RJ Eytle-Rock.
Shulga’s 3-point play with just under 16 minutes remaining pulled the Aggies to within three, 40-37. Sean Bairstow’s triple a minute later got the Aggies within one, and a few moments later USU took its first lead of the game when the bullish Eytle-Rock sank a pair of free throws after a controversial block-charge call went the Aggies’ way.
Odom said it was “quite a game” for one that featured just one lead change. Once USU got the advantage, the air went out of the Broncos.
Shulga would go on to hit back-to-back 3-pointers between the 4:25 mark and the 3:35 mark to seal the deal.
Meanwhile, the Aggies stopped their generosity in the final 20 minutes, and surrendered zero points off five second-half turnovers.
“The open man is the go-to man on our team,” said Shulga, who finished with a game-high 19 points.
Boise State cooled off considerably in the second half, which coach Leon Rice attributed, in part, to fatigue. The Broncos were taken to overtime Thursday by UNLV when USU was coasting past New Mexico.
“It is a game of making some shots, and they were able to do that,” Rice said. “… Maybe one of the weaknesses of this team is the amount of guys I played. That probably showed up in our shooting.”
The Broncos shot 54% in the first half and 27% in the second half.
“Once we began to settle in in the second half and closed the gap a little bit, our guys began to feel some juice there and you kinda saw how the ending went,” Odom said. “It was a positive ending for us.”
It was nothing of the sort for Boise State, as Rice was assessed a technical foul with 3:19 remaining.
In a physical, heated game that featured 42 fouls — 20 on USU, 22 on BSU — and lots of stoppages in play, it was one of those always difficult block-charge calls that Boise State insisted swung the momentum to USU’s favor for good.
Broncos star Tyson Degenhart was whistled for the block, picking up his fourth foul, on the drive by Eytle-Rock that ended with the lead-changing free throws.
Degenhart said postgame it was one of those bang-bang plays that just didn’t go Boise State’s way. Asked for his opinion on the matter moments later, Rice said he thought Degenhart answered the question well and left it at that.
Ashworth, who uncharacteristically missed two free throws after the technical foul was called, said the Aggies’ ability to keep their composure was a key element of the final 5-10 minutes.
“We talk about making sure you leave the jersey in a better place when you play for Utah State,” he said.
Regarding the big turnaround in the second half, Odom said it began on the journey to the locker room at intermission.
“As we looked at the scoreboard and walked in at halftime we just talked about all the things that we’ve talked about all season — the discipline, the execution, handling physicality, the composure that you have to have to be a great team, a winning team, and how connected we have to be,” Odom said. “We weren’t as connected as we needed to be in that first half, and Boise State had a lot to do with that.”
Then the real Aggies showed up in the second half — and not some impostors from the madness a few blocks away.