LOGAN — It was Senior Night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
The home crowd was 9,963 fans strong for the finale of the regular season, and Boise State, a team that had blown out the Utah State Aggies in January, was waiting to start a game with massive implications for Utah State’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies had a calming speech from coach Ryan Odom, took a deep breath, and went onto the court.
And then they dominated.
Utah State led virtually the entire game and exacted a well-timed measure of revenge against the rival Broncos as the Aggies prevailed, 86-73, in front of the largest home crowd of the season on Saturday night. Five different players scored in double-figures as grad transfer Taylor Funk led all scorers with 24 points on 9 of 12 shooting, including 4 of 6 from the 3-point line.
The Broncos had four players in double-figures, and despite being down by as much as 20 points in the first half, slowly inched back over the course of the second half.
When BSU whittled the lead down to just 6 with 2:14 to play. Utah State’s next offensive play broke down, but Funk got a nod from Akin to come behind him for a pitch. Funk took the signal and broke off of his defender to take a 3-pointer. Up to that point, the Aggies were shooting 1-for-8 from the arc in the second half, but Funk took the shot without hesitation and buried it to all but seal the victory.
“Confidence is key; You’re a different player when you play with confidence, and that’s all that this coaching staff gives you,” Funk said. “They encourage you every single day, and they never get on you for missing shots, especially when they’re the great shots.
“(The) open man is the best man, (the) best shot is the open shot. We kind of live by that, and we have really good shooters. It could’ve been anyone. The guy went under the screen, and I think any of our guards could’ve shot that shot. It just happened to be me.”
Besides Funk, junior guard Steven Ashworth had on of his best games as he put up 19 points along with a team-high eight assists. Senior Dan Akin scored 14 points, while senior Sean Bairstow and junior Max Shulga added 12 and 11 points, respectively.
The Aggies seemed to have little trouble on offense going up against the 10th-ranked defense in the country per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Utah State’s 86 points were the most the Broncos have allowed in a game this season and just the second time they had allowed more than 80.
“It’s really hard to score on them and it’s really hard to keep them from scoring,” Odom said. “They have interchangeable parts throughout their roster, and they’ve had a great season. I think in this particular game with the way that our guys played, we got off to a good start and we played really hard.”
Utah State started the game by scoring on seven of its first eight possessions, including two offensive rebounds by Funk for putback layups. After Boise State briefly took a lead, 9-8, in the first four minutes, the Aggies responded with a 12-2 run that put them ahead for good.
The Broncos drew close again later in the half, 22-18, but over the next 9:15, the Aggies outscored them, 25-9, and a fastbreak layup by senior RJ Eytle-Rock on an assist by Ashworth gave Utah State an insurmountable 20-point lead.
The Aggies, who have all but bought real estate on the NCAA Tournament bubble this season, needed this win to get their last chance at a Quad 1 win in the regular season, the one gaping hole in USU’s 24-win resume. More than anything, the Aggies’ win against a team that unceremoniously hammered them, 82-59 earlier in the season, show that they may be ready to play their best basketball when it matters most.
“I think we just improved a lot since then,” Funk said. “(BSU)’s a really, really good team, well-coached, great players…our defense really kicked it up. That’s why we won tonight. You win games on the defensive end. We’re fortunate enough to have a really, really good offense. And when the defense is going and the offense is going, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Utah State’s win solidified the final piece of the puzzle for the Mountain West tournament bracket as the Aggies claimed the No. 3 seed. They’ll face the winner of No. 6 New Mexico/No. 11 Wyoming in the quarterfinals on March 9.