It wasn’t looking good with three minutes to play.
Then Steven Ashworth went off. Crisis averted for the Aggie men’s basketball team.
Utah State finished strong Tuesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and stayed perfect on the season with a 95-85 win against Oral Roberts in front of 5,980 fans.
“Thanksgiving Spectrum, we knew a lot of students would be out of town, but the students that were here definitely showed up,” said Ashworth, who finished with a career-high 30 points. “The community showed up big-time tonight. It was super fun to be in the Spectrum.”
The Golden Eagles (3-3) had rallied from a 14-point deficit in the first half to knot the game at 77-77 with 2:59 to play when Carlos Jurgens hit a pair of free throws. Aggie guard Rylan Jones had picked up his fourth foul. Utah State (5-0) called a timeout.
“We wanted to try and spread them out, so we went small for the first time in the game,” Aggie head coach Ryan Odom said. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible.”
Enter Ashworth or perhaps better named “Splashworth.”
The junior guard drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Jones. A technical was called on Oral Roberts when Patrick Mwamba was called for a flop. Ashworth sank the free throw to essentially convert a four-point play.
“In the game of basketball, we don’t want to embrace or reward flopping,” Ashworth said. “... It’s difficult. It went our way a few times. It went their way a few times.”
After a block by Zee Hamoda on the defensive end, Ashworth buried a pull-up 3-pointer. The Golden Eagles missed a 3-point shot, and Ashworth once again drilled a shot from distance, this time off a pass from Taylor Funk. Suddenly, the Aggies were up 87-77 with 1:14 to play.
“Honestly, it just kind of happened,” said Ashworth, when asked about scoring 10 straight points. “We were really talking in that timeout about our execution and making sure that we get things tight. We called that timeout for that specific reason. We made a great play. Taylor (Funk) dribbled baseline, and I came behind to corner. He made an extra pass and Rylan (Jones) made an extra pass, and I was open in the corner and I hit it. We got the flop call on top of that for a little four-point play action.
“That’s the beauty of this team is we can look to go to any single guy at any moment, and we know that that individual is going to be ready to knock down the shot. Tonight, luckily, it was myself.”
Oral Roberts hit a pair of treys in the closing minute, but USU made 8 of 11 free throws in the final 57 seconds to ice the game.
“What I’m most proud of is that it ended up being a one-possession game – it didn’t finish as a one-possession game,” Odom said. “It was down to a tie game with two-and-a-half minutes or whatever it was. We had to figure out are we going to be able to score or are we going to be able to get the stops that we need. Our guys stepped up. Obviously, Ashworth’s three and multiple plays within that. From a defensive perspective, Zee coming in and getting the blocked shot, that was the defensive play of the game in a lot of ways from a defensive perspective.”
The Aggies shot 61.3 percent from 3-point range, making 19 of 31 from beyond the arc. The 19 made 3-pointers is the second-most in school history. Ashworth was 8 of 9 from long range, and Funk was 6 of 8.
“We knew that coming into this that we had to guard the three,” Oral Roberts head coach Paul Mills said. “We just didn’t do a good job of being chest-to-chest with players. Sixty-one percent from three, 19 of 31 from three. I can’t believe that was from one team.”
Both teams had five players reach double figures in scoring. Joining Ashworth for the Aggies were Funk (18), Dan Akin (12), Jones (10) and Max Shulga. Shulga had his first double-double with a team-best 10 rebounds, which was a career high for the junior. Shulga and Jones each had seven assists.
“I didn’t (realize I was close to a triple-double),” Shulga said. “I don’t really keep up with the stats as I play. I just try to win so that’s not really the focus. We got the win so that’s all that matters.”
“They (Aggies) shoot 23 free throws; we shoot 12,” Mills said. “They make 19 threes. You’re just not going to win basketball games like that. It’s a tie game with two-and-a-half minutes to go. We’ve got to be better in those situations. But allowing 6 for 8 and 8 for 9 from three from two players is not how you get the win.”
The Golden Eagles were led by Isaac McBride with 19 points, while 7-foot-5 Connor Vanover finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and blocked four shots. Max Abmas added 17 points, while Kareem Thompson and Jurgins each chipped in 11.
“We were really worried about this game going in because we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Odom said. “We knew it was going to be tough to stop them. Certainly, it played out that way and every time we would separate a little bit, they came back. In the first half, we had one little positive stretch where we were getting several stops in a row and we were able to continue to score. That gave us some pretty good separation there. Then they end up coming out of halftime.”
After falling behind early, the Aggies used a 9-2 run to take a 9-4 lead three minutes into the contest. All nine points came from 3-pointers and was a sign of things to come.
USU went nearly three minutes without scoring, but still had the lead as Oral Roberts couldn’t take advantage.
After three lead changes and four ties, the Aggies used a 16-2 surge to take control. There were four treys by the hosts during the run. Ashworth had eight points as USU built a 37-23 lead with 5:11 left in the opening half.
The teams traded 6-0 runs as the Golden Eagles heated up from long distance. USU made 11 of 16 from long range over the first 20 minutes and took a 49-40 lead into the break.
The Aggies had 16 assists by halftime as seven players recorded at least a dime. Five USU players had at least eight points in the first half.
Oral Roberts chipped away at the lead in the second half, inching closer and closer. Eight straight points by the visitors tied the game at 77-77.
Then it was the Ashworth show.
“Old-fashioned shootout,” Odom said. “That was incredible. Oral Roberts is a dynamite team and extremely well-coached. They’re never out of a game. They fight tooth and nail. They’ve got some great shooters and players.
“... It’s great that we have that experience and that feeling to play against a quality team like that, that has a legitimate chance and internal expectations to win their league and return to the NCAA tournament. Obviously, Sweet Sixteen two years ago, that’s a pretty good team we just played. We feel we’re good, too. Certainly, it’s something that we’re proud of, getting the win. Now we move on to the next game and see what’s next.”
Utah State went into the game with an KenPom ranking of 48 (exactly where it was last Thursday), while Oral Roberts came in at 106. … Ken Pomeroy was at the game Tuesday night. … The Aggies won the battle of the boards, 38-29, and have outrebounded every opponent this season. … This was the fourth straight game USU had at least four players reach double figures in scoring. ... The Aggie bench outscored their counterparts, 49-9. … USU had a season-high 25 assists and a season-high 19 turnovers. … The eight made 3-pointers by Steven Ashworth ties Jaycee Carroll, Cardell Butler and Preston Medlin for third most by an Aggie in a game. … The “Ice Cream Man” was Steven Ashworth as he put USU over 75 points with a 3-pointer. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Golden Eagles, 7-1.
It’s a no brainer that Steven Ashworth is getting this. The junior came off the bench to score a career-high 30 points on 9 of 11 shooting, including 8 of 9 from 3-point range. Ashworth scored 10 straight points late when the game was tied. He played 26 minutes, dished out four assists and grabbed a rebound.
The Aggies remain at home but don’t play for more than a week. Utah State will host Utah Tech on Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. The Trailblazers (2-3) play two games in North Dakota this weekend before coming to Logan.