Two scoring dry spells did the Aggies in Wednesday night at Moby Arena.
Sure, Utah State rallied and even took the lead late in the game against preseason Mountain West Conference favorite Colorado State. However, expending energy to dig out of a double-digit hole took its toll. Had the Aggie men’s basketball team not had to rally, it may have turned into a big road win.
The Rams bounced back from a 30-point thrashing at the hands of San Diego State last Saturday to beat USU, 77-72, in front of 4,578 fans.
“We had some good looks, they just didn’t go down,” Aggie head coach Ryan Odom said. “Defensively, we could have done a little bit better.”
USU (10-6, 1-2) had a 10-5 lead seven-and-a-half minutes into the contest. Neither team was shooting well to start the game.
Colorado State (12-1, 2-1) went more than six minutes without scoring, but the Aggies could only score six points during that timespan. Then when the Rams did start scoring, USU took its turn firing blanks and turning the ball over.
Sean Bairstow drove in for a bucket to give the Aggies the 10-5 lead. The next seven possessions resulted in three missed 3-point shots, three turnovers, a missed shot after an offensive rebound and one free throw from Max Shulga.
“Sean was awesome tonight,” Odom said. “He had some key baskets for us and was aggressive, trying to get to the rim.”
For more than five minutes USU could not find the bottom of the net with the exception of Shulga’s free throw. The Rams made four 3-point shots and converted a steal into a layup to take a 19-11 lead with 7:51 left in the first half.
Justin Bean ended the dry spell with a three-point play, and Bairstow drilled a 3-pointer to bring the Aggies back within two. But then the next scoreless stretch began.
USU went nearly four minutes this time without any points. Colorado State scored eight straight to take a 27-17 lead. The Aggies had four possessions that came up empty on four missed shots. RJ Eytle-Rock made a 3-point shot to end the drought.
“We can not allow the other team’s best players to stand there and shoot.” Odom said. “It’s a learning thing. We were in front of them, but we needed to make them dribble. Some things we have to learn from.”
The Aggies trailed by nine at halftime.
Both teams came out scoring in the second half. Each time USU started to inch closer, CSU would respond. With nine-and-a-half minutes to play, the Rams held a 53-43 lead.
Steven Ashworth had made four straight free throws and continued to score as USU made a push. Ashworth would end up scoring 10 straight points for the Aggies and all 13 of his points in the game during a three-minute span, making 7 of 8 foul shots. He had nine points during an 11-2 run as USU got within 55-54 with 7:49 to play.
Once again the Rams responded, pusing their lead to five.
The Aggies made one more charge, scoring seven unanswered points to take a 62-60 lead with 4:36 left in the game. But once again CSU responded with a 7-0 run of its own to take the lead for good.
“We did a nice job offensively in the second half and inched our way back in the game,” Odom said. “Steven Ashworth was tremendous in helping us get to the free throw line more. Sean Bairstow had an excellent game.”
Before Wednesday night, USU had won seven of the last eight meetings with the Rams, including the last two in Moby Arena. This CSU team is special, returning five starters from a squad that reached the NIT semifinals last year. The Rams had been ranked in the Top 25 for more than a month before the loss at San Diego State.
The much anticipated matchup of Bean and David Roddy – two all-conference forwards – was good, but with Bean fouling out for the first time in his career with a minute to play and the Aggies down three, left one wondering if USU could have completed the comeback.
Roddy led all scorers with 24 points and six rebounds. Bean finished with 14 points and six rebounds.
Bairstow led the Aggies with a career-high 20 points, while Brandon Horvath netted 15 points, grabbed a team-best seven rebounds and also had a team-high four assists.
“I’m happy individually, just wish we won,” Bairstow said.
Next up for USU is a home game against Wyoming. The Aggies have had to play their first three MW contests on the road because of postponements caused by other schools. USU last played at home on Dec. 21, just a few days before the last time the Cowboys (11-2, 0-0) last played as they have had their last four games postponed.
“It’s really exciting to be back in the Spectrum in front of the HURD and all the Aggie fans,” Bairstow said. “Yeah, looking forward to Saturday.”