Montana Western Utah St Basketball MAIN

Montana Western forward Jok Jok (10 attempts a shot as Utah State forward Brandon Horvath defends in an exhibition game earlier this season. Horvath had 12 points in Friday's Aggie win.

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Aggies were guaranteed to be in the championship game of the 2021 Myrtle Beach Invitational. It was just which ones?

The answer in a resounding way came Friday morning in Conway, South Carolina, at the HTC Center on the campus of Coastal Carolina. The ones from Utah State.

In a battle of former conference foes, it was all USU in the first semifinal of the tournament. Utah State dominated early and cruised to a 85-58 win as 13 Aggies saw at least two minutes of action. Ten different players scored.

“We are just clicking,” said USU guard Rylan Jones, who scored a game-best 19 points. “The more time we spend together, the better you play with each other.”

Oklahoma beat Indiana State in the other semifinal later in the day, 87-63.

“This is going to be my first experience playing for a championship,” Jones said. “These guys that have been here have played for a lot of championships. I’m happy I get to compete with them for a championship. … It’s fun to play for a championship five games into a season. I’m very excited and I think we are all excited and looking forward to the opportunity.”

Utah State (3-1) trailed early but used a 13-0 run to take the lead and never looked back. The Aggies from Utah shot a season-high 56.4 percent from the floor and made a season-best 14 3-pointers on 29 attempts.

“Today was a chance to cultivate the bench some, especially coming off a two-overtime game,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “We knew we would have to sub pretty early in the game to make sure our guys were fresh throughout. Then the game played out the way it did, so we were able to get guys minutes. Today was a step in the right direction for us.”

It was the first setback of the young season for New Mexico State (3-1). The southern Aggies shot 35.1 percent from the field and made 12 of 32 shots from long range. Six of those treys came in the final four-and-a-half minutes of the contest.

“Our game plan was to keep them (NMSU players) in front of us and make them shoot over us, and we did that from the tip,” Jones said. “... As long as you make them shoot more hard shots than good shots, you have a good chance to win.”

Joining Jones in double-figure scoring for USU was Justin Bean (17), Brandon Horvath (12) and Max Shulga with a career-high 11 points off the bench. Bean was the top rebounder for USU with seven.

“Bean is a special player and I hope he goes 33 and 16 every night,” Jones said when asked about not needing Bean to carry a big offensive load as he had 33 points and 16 rebounds on Thursday against Penn. “That would be nice for the rest of us, but we are a well rounded team. Our starting five can pass, shoot and dribble, so that’s always a hard matchup for opponents. And we love each other. We have fun together.”

The southern Aggies were led by Teddy Allen with 14 points, while Levar Williams netted 13. Allen matched Bean for a game-best seven rebounds.

“It is five against the ball, it’s not all on one person,” Odom said when asked about USU’s defense. “We did double them in the post. We wanted to bother the ball without getting beat off the bounce. … I thought our guys made the right decisions throughout the game to give ourselves the best chance to contest a shot and be in position to rebound.”

The Aggies from New Mexico scored first, but their lead lasted just 36 seconds.

“Not much to say," NMSU head coach Chris Jans said. "That was a good old-fashioned taken-to-the-woodshed type of game, and we were on the wrong side of it. A lot of credit to coach Odom, his staff. They were ready to go. We made the first basket of the game, and it went south in a hurry."

After missing a pair of 3-pointers, USU got on the board with a trey from Horvath. The designated home Aggies would not trail again.

The game was knotted at 7-7 just over two minutes into the contest. Horvath found Bean for a layup to ignite a 13-0 run. NMSU went more than five minutes without scoring. Four USU players scored during the run as the surge finished with a flurry of a trio of 3-pointers. Brock Miller hit one, then Jones nailed back-to-back treys to give USU a 20-7 lead with 13:16 left in the opening half.

Jones missed his first shot from long distance, but then made his next five.

“I feel I finished the second half against Penn pretty well and just kept the confidence going,” said Jones, who had 21 points in a 87-79 double-overtime win against Penn on Thursday. “I had a wide-open shot at the first of the game and missed, and that was my last miss. That’s usually pretty good. Credit to my teammates for finding me in open areas, and I was able to make the shots.”

NMSU kept launching treys, hitting a few.

A free throw by Szymon Zapala sparked a 8-0 surge as USU built a 32-13 lead at the 6:15 mark of the first half.

That run was interrupted by a 3-pointer by NMSU, but then USU finished off the final four minutes of the first 20 with a 9-0 run. Bean had five points during the end of the half. USU took a 41-16 lead into the break. It was the first time this season USU took a lead into halftime.

New Mexico State tried to get back into the game with a trey and a trio of free throws to open the second half. But it was one of those special kind of days for USU.

Horvath hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and Steven Ashworth got into the act from long range. With 11:49 to play, USU held a 59-28 lead. It would get worse for NMSU.

Shulga sank a 3-pointer, and USU reeled off seven unanswered points for a 69-32 lead with nine minutes to play. However, the Aggies from Logan were not done yet. Four different players scored during a 8-0 run to give USU its largest lead of the game, 77-37, with five minutes to play.

With bench players on the court, NMSU was able to go on a 9-0 run on three shots from beyond the arc. The southern Aggies kept launching from 3-point land, and USU ran out the clock for its third straight win.

TIP-INS

USU improved to 20-7 in tournament play over the last three years, which includes conference tournament action and the NCAA Tournament. … USU won the rebounding battle, 36-27. … In the paint, USU outscored NMSU 28-10 and has not been outscored in the paint this season. … USU had a season-high 22 assists as Jones, Horvath and Ashworth led the way with four each. ... The game was tied one time and the lead changed hands just one time. … True freshman Zee Hamoda came off the bench for USU to grab three rebounds, dish out two assists and block two shots in 14 minutes. ... Utah State leads the all-time series with New Mexico State, 37-30.

GAME BALL

Jones gets the nod after another solid outing. The guard finished with a game-high 19 points on 7 of 8 shooting from the field, including 5 of 6 from 3-point range. The junior also dished out four assists, grabbed four rebounds and came up with two steals in 26 minutes of action.

AGGIE DUNK/CHARGE COUNT

The lone dunk came early in the second half when Jones found Bean cutting to the basket for an uncontested slam.

In the charge department, Jones continued to rack them up. He stood his ground for his first of the day just 90 seconds into the game. Jones took another just before halftime. Shulga joined the group, drawing a charge midway through the second half.

Season dunk count: Bean 3, Trevin Dorius 2.

Season charge count: Jones 8, Shulga 1, Horvath 1.

UP NEXT

Utah State will play in the championship game of the MBI on Sunday at 1 p.m. The Aggies will play Oklahoma (4-0). The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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