Coming off Tuesday’s 13-point loss at New Mexico, the 16th-ranked Utah State Aggies suddenly looked mortal after not losing a game since Veterans Day.
And after surrendering a 10-1 run to Fresno State to start the second half Saturday afternoon, it seemed perfectly logical that Utah State head coach Danny Sprinkle would call a timeout to try to get his team back on track after seeing a 40-27 halftime lead suddenly shrunk down to just four points.
But Sprinkle resisted the urge, and the non-move proved to the right one.
“It was in the back of my head to call a timeout, but sometimes you have to let guys play through adversity,” Sprinkle said following USU’s 83-62 victory over the Bulldogs.
“We were still getting good shots; we just missed a couple of layups and chippies. Then we had a couple of uncharacteristic turnovers, so it wasn’t like I needed to call a timeout to get them organized. We were getting good shots, and when we got a couple of them to fall, they just relaxed and it opened things up.”
After weathering the storm, the Aggies (17-2 overall, 5-1 in the Mountain West) ended up going on a 12-4 run that steadied the ship for a USU team eager to get back on track after having its 15-game winning streak come to an abrupt end in Albuquerque.
Utah State pulled away from Fresno State (8-10, 1-4) by as many as 24 points in the second half on its way to improving its home record to 9-0 this season.
“This was a gut-check game for our guys,” Sprinkle declared. “I was concerned because I know how good Fresno State is. I know how tough and physical they play.
“We got out-toughed and out-physicaled at New Mexico. I’m not shy to say that. Our guys really answered the bell today.”
Most notable was Great Osobor. The Aggies’ leading scorer hyperextended his left knee late in USU’s 99-86 loss at New Mexico, and despite having a soft brace on during Saturday’s game, the junior forward finished with a game-high 20 points and 12 rebounds in 33 minutes of action.
“We weren’t sure he was gonna play,” Sprinkle noted. “I mean, I knew he would play, but I didn’t know how effective he’d be. He hadn’t done anything the last two days in practice other than just a little bit of like, light walkthrough.
“… So, it was a gutsy effort by him tonight, and I and his teammates appreciate him playing through the pain like that.”
Osobor did his best work in the first half, going 7 for 7 from the floor on his way to 18 points. That included a 2 for 2 performance from 3-point range, where the Bulldogs left him wide open, daring him to shoot from beyond his comfort zone.
Osobor was a mere 1 for 4 from long distance on the season coming into the game.
“He will make one once in a while, but I forgot the last time he made one,” USU guard Ian Martinez said with a smile. “But he took the risk, and that’s another weapon for us if he’s able to make some threes, so hopefully he keeps making them.”
Martinez, who led the Aggies with 22 points in the loss to the Lobos, put together his second straight strong outing, scoring 14 points, including two 3-pointers, and setting new career-highs in rebounds (seven) and assists (six).
Junior guard Josh Uduje (12 points) and senior guard Darius Brown II (11 points, five assists) also reached double figures in scoring the Aggies, who shot near 56% in the first half and over 55% in the second half.
The Bulldogs, who were coached by assistant Keith Brown after head coach Justin Hutson was sidelined for the second straight game by an illness, went with a 2-3 zone in the second half. After some initial success, the Aggies settled into their zone offense and regained scoring with regularity.
“We made the adjustment at halftime to go to a zone, and it took them a little while to get adjusted to it,” Brown said. “We got out in the open court and started attacking a little bit and getting opportunities to close the gap, but they made some adjustments, and we broke down to just some real defensive principles.
“We don’t play a lot of zone, so we understand it’s going to be a growing situation for us, but at the same time, regardless of what defense you play, you have to know where their shooters are and guard the basketball.”
Fresno State, which never led after scoring the first basket of the game, shot 41.4% as a team and were just 7 of 25 from 3-point range.
Leading scorer Isaiah Hill went 2 for 9 from the floor and finished with just five points, nearly eight below his average.
Senior guard Isaiah Pope totaled a team-high 16 points for the Bulldogs, who were outrebounded by the Aggies by a 40-25 margin.
Utah State, playing a rare afternoon game, ended up drawing 8,851 fans to the Spectrum on Saturday, and the Aggies noticed.
“It was different, but the energy here stays consistent and that’s important to us,” Martinez said of the 2 p.m. tipoff. “The fans always come in and do their thing. It helps us when we get on runs and we can get the other team out of their element.”
Still tied for first place in the Mountain West, Utah State’s next game will be at Boise State on Jan. 27. Sprinkle said it’s a good time for his players and coaches to take a little break, and he plans to give the Aggies 48 hours off before returning to practice on Monday.