INDIANAPOLIS — Just south of Indianapolis there’s a tributary of the Driftwood River that flows through east-central Indiana. Known as the Big Blue River, it’s clearly a place where a “Fish” from Utah State might be expected to thrive.

Perhaps that’s why sophomore forward Isaac Johnson — known to his teammates by the nickname “Fish” — was able to deliver a career-high 19 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to help the Aggies secure an impressive 88-72 victory over TCU at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“Unbelievable win,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle proclaimed after the first NCAA tourney victory of his career. “Just the toughness and the grit our guys showed against a Big 12 team. That’s a physical team; we knew what we were in for when we drew that seed.

“I really think playing San Diego State last Friday prepared us for this win. We practiced hard this week. And we practiced physical because I felt like we didn’t play as physical and as tough as we needed to against San Diego State. But sometimes losses help you win the next game, and it happened tonight.”

“We had so many big plays by everybody that got in,” Sprinkle added. “Everybody that got in scored or had a rebound.”

Utah State center Isaac Johnson reacts after making a basket in the second half of a first-round college basketball game against TCU in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Indianapolis. | Michael Conroy

The win was the first for Utah State in the NCAA Tournament since a 77-68 overtime upset of Ohio State in 2001, and it ended the school’s 10-game losing streak in the Big Dance.

The margin of victory was the largest for a USU team in the NCAA Tournament since the Aggies beat UTEP, 91-81, in 1970.

“I’m proud of the tradition that we have at Utah State, but we haven’t won a tournament game in a while. It’s hard to win a tournament game. It takes some luck, and it takes guys making some shots and big-time plays like they did tonight. It’s awesome for our program and our community,” Sprinkle said.

The win by the eighth-seeded Aggies (28-6) over the ninth-seeded Horned Frogs (21-13) lifted Utah State into a second-round matchup against Purdue at 12:40 p.m. MDT Sunday. The No. 1 seed Boilermakers roughed up Grambling, 70-58, earlier Friday night.

Johnson, an American Fork product who transferred to USU from Oregon in 2022, scored 12 straight points for the Aggies during a key stretch that helped give Utah State control of the game for good in the second half.

For the contest, the 7-footer went 6 for 10 from the field — including 2 of 4 from 3-point range — and knocked down all five of his free-throw attempts. He also came up with a career-best four blocks.

“Coach came to me before the game and said, ‘Shoot the ball and be confident.’ So, I took his advice,” said Johnson, who redshirted last season under former head coach Ryan Odom.

He continued, “There’s been a bit of a mental battle going on, and this year has really taught me how to believe in myself and have confidence in myself. And it’s been such a great help to have my teammates and coaches have that confidence in me. And so when I have these games, it teaches me to the player I can be, and I’m just going to try and continue to believe myself and rely on my coaches and teammates where there’s ups and downs.”

Senior guard Ian Martinez led the Aggies with 21 points thanks, in part, to an 8-for-8 performance at the free-throw line.

As a team, Utah State went 14-of-15 from the charity stripe, while shooting 55% from the floor overall and 8 of 19 from 3-point range.

Great Osobor was limited to less than 31 minutes due to foul trouble, but the junior forward still totaled 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

Graduate point guard Darius Brown II, who lost in lost in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament when he, Osobor and Sprinkle were at Montana State, collected 10 points and 10 assists before exiting the game in the final minute.

Brown’s 10 assists pushed him to 224 for the year, tying Kris Clark’s school record total from 2008.

“It’s awesome because you think of all of the great point guards that have played at Utah State and for him to do it in his only year,” Sprinkle said. “I mean, he’s already a Utah State legend for some of the shots he’s hit and the type of person he is. And I know I’m proud that he got that because one of the most unselfish players. He would rather pass than score, and there’s not many kids like that in the country.”

But Brown and other Aggies weren’t able to keep the TCU off the offensive glass. A major concern for Sprinkle and his staff coming into the game, the Horned Frogs racked up 21 offensive boards to just five for the Aggies.

Of course, TCU also created many of those opportunities by shooting just 35.8% for the game, including a 7-for-22 performance from 3-point range.

Junior forward JaKobe Coles led TCU with 19 points and three 3-pointers, while senior forward Emanuel Miller scored 13 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in 38 minutes.

Another key for the Aggies was slowing down the Frogs’ transition game, which led to more than 18 points a night, on average, this season.

Against Utah State, TCU came up with just nine fast-break points, only one more than the Aggies.

“Tonight wasn’t our night,” TCU head coach Jamie Dixon stated. “We got off to a good start, but still didn’t feel like we were doing what needed to do defensively, and as it went on, they just continued to get layups, continued to out-execute us. And simply put, we were outplayed.”

Texas Christian, which finished seventh in the Big 12 this season, built an early eight -point lead, but the Aggies weathered the storm thanks in a large part to Johnson going on an offensive tear. Down 18-10 less than seven minutes into the game, Utah State battled back to tie the game, then pulled away as Osobor went to work, scoring down low or finding teammates for open shots.

Up by as many as eight points in the first half, Utah State took a 43-37 lead into the locker room, and the Aggies’ confidence was evident as they returned to the arena for the second half.

During his halftime speech, Sprinkle said he encouraged his players to hit the boards even harder, “because we need to up the ante, making contact boxouts.”

“That was the main message,” Sprinkle added. “And then telling them I was proud of ‘em. We only had three turnovers at halftime, which got us that lead.”

The Aggies would only have six more turnovers in the second half against a team that averaged more than nine steals per game. And while its advantage got down to as few as two points, Utah State never gave up the lead thanks to Johnson’s emergence as a somewhat surprising hero.

As Utah State fans and his teammates did “Fish” chomps with their arms extended in his honor, Johnson helped take Utah State from a narrow, 43-41 lead to a 59-49 advantage by scoring 12 straight points for the Aggies over a five-minute stretch.

“Credit to Utah State, they’re in this tournament for a reason,” Miller said after the game. “Great coach. Great program. Great culture. You know, they competed. We went on a big run, and they did a good job of responding.”

Utah State ended up leading the game by as many as 18 points, and the Aggies were ahead by enough down the stretch that Sprinkle inserted walk-on guard Landon Brenchley — the only player on the team to return any stats from last season as an Aggie — with 71 seconds left as the Aggies started to celebrate the long-sought-after victory with the contingent of USU fans behind the bench.

“We work really well together as a team when we decide to work together as a team,” Johnson said when asked about facing Purdue on Sunday. “A lot of teams have difficulty with us when we do that. So, I think no matter that they’re the No. 1 seed or have been ranked throughout the country for however many weeks, I think we have the capability to hang with anybody