A 3-point barrage in the first half was more than enough to keep the Aggies undefeated Monday night.
Utah State hit eight long-range shots in the opening 20 minutes and cruised to a 96-74 victory against Santa Clara at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in a non-conference men’s basketball game in front of 6,549 fans.
“This was obviously a great victory for us,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “... It was a very fast paced game for both teams. … Offensively, Taylor Funk was dynamite. Our transition offense was really good. We were able to find one another and get some clean looks in the first half.”
The Aggies (3-0) also got a huge first half from Funk. The graduate forward had 19 of his game-best 22 points in the first half.
“It’s nice to see the ball go through the hoop,” said Funk, who also grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds. “The HURD was incredible tonight. … We are on a mission right now.”
In a battle of unbeaten teams early in the season, it was all Aggies for most of the final 30 minutes of the contest. The Broncos (2-1) just could never get within single digits after falling behind by double figures.
“They maintained the intensity throughout,” Santa Clara head coach Herb Sendek said. “We had an extremely difficult time guarding them off the three, off the bounce. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They’re a very good, veteran basketball team that plays very well together. Coach Odom does a great job. And what a great home court. What a great place for those guys to compete in.”
Joining Funk in double-digit scoring for the Aggies were Steven Ashworth (18), Dan Akin (13) and Trevin Dorius (11). Sean Bairstow and Rylan Jones each added nine points, while Max Shulga netted eight and was credited with playing some tough defense on the Broncos top scorer.
“The defense on No. 22 (Brandin Podziemski) was key to not let him get open threes,” Odom said. “We tried to not let them get clean looks. … I thought Max (Shulga) did a great job. It is not easy to play defense on a guy like that. Max was great.”
The Broncos were led by Parker Braun with 14. Podziemski chipped in 12 and Carlos Marshall Jr. added 10. Podziemski came into the game averaging 32 points and 10 rebounds a game. He had four boards.
“That kid (Podziemski) can shoot, that kid can play,” Funk said. “It was huge. Our guys did so well and we had a good defensive strategy against him. He made some tough floaters, but we have to live with those. We kept him off the three for the most part.”
“It’s all about defense; you win games because of defense,” Dorius said. “Taylor (Funk) had six points just on steals. It starts on defense.”
Bronco point guard Carlos Stewart came into the game averaging 17.0 points a game, but was held to five Monday night.
“Both Rylan (Jones) and Steven (Ashworth) did a good job on Stewart,” Odom said. “Stewart is fast, really fast and hard to guard in transition. Our guys, collectively, all five got back and did a really nice job.”
USU finished with a season-best 12 3-pointers for the game. The Aggies also had season highs in assists (25) and steals (12). USU also won the battle of the boards, 41-36.
“It was a team effort, a great team win against a really good Santa Clara team,” Odom said. “... Our guys are committed to making the next pass. There is not a selfish bone in any of our guy’s bodies. We are committed to playing the game in a very unselfish way. It doesn’t mean we are perfect at it.”
Funk scored the first bucket of the game with a drive to the hoop and a finger roll. It was a sign of what was to come.
However, first there were six lead changes and two ties over the first nine minutes of the game. The Broncos used a 5-0 surge to take their first lead, but it was short lived.
Max Shulga hit a pull-up jumper to spark a 9-0 USU run. Funk had a steal for a dunk and threw another one down on a fastbreak off a pass from Jones. Jones then capped the first of many 3-point barrages by the hosts with a trey off a pass from Shulga to give the Aggies an 11-5 lead three-and-a-half minutes into the contest.
The Broncos scored seven consecutive points to get back in front. Marshall had a jumper to give Santa Clara a 15-13 lead at the 14:21 mark of the first half.
The final lead change came with a 3-point flurry. Jones hit back-to-back shots from long range on passes from Akin and Zee Hamoda. The Aggies took a 22-17 lead with 10:32 left in the opening half.
“It was great to see him (Jones) know down some shots early in the game,” Odom said. “That puts a ton of pressure on the defense. … It’s huge when he is knocking in shots. He is not the guy other teams are thinking about making shots. Those are daggers to the other team. Not that he can’t shoot, we believe in him.”
The lead quickly reached double figures when Funk hit a deep trey, and Ashworth drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Jones to make it 33-23. Funk and Ashworth would tickle the twine from beyond the arc minutes later as the crowd turned up the decibel level.
Funk came up with his fourth steal of the first 20 minutes and slammed down his third dunk to raise the roof in the Spectrum. Funk capped the first-half scoring with a rebound bucket, and the Aggies took a 50-36 lead into the break.
“It’s nice when the three balls go in, but you can’t count on that every night though,” Funk said. “We have guards that can get in the paint, that collapses everyone. We have lob threats as well.”
USU made eight 3-pointers in the first half and came up with eight steals. The Aggies had just five turnovers, while the Broncos had nine.
Funk started the second half with a deep 3-pointer, and several minutes later the Broncos were using their third timeout of the game.
The students were a bit slow, but did break out the “Up by 20-1” chant after Dorius threw down his second dunk during a 7-0 surge. Jones found the Aggie big man for both dunks, including a crowd-pleasing alley-oop. USU took a 65-44 lead with 15 minutes to play.
The lead ballooned to 92-65 with 4:51 left in the game. Ashworth scored five straight points to give the hosts their largest advantage.
There was a scary moment near the end when Ashworth had to be helped from the court to gasps from the crowd.
“We don’t know, but I think it was a twisted ankle,” Odom said of Ashworth. “We will see how it progresses.”
Utah State went into the game with an KenPom ranking of 58, while Santa Clara came in at 105. … The Aggies have the third-oldest roster in the nation with an average age of 21.8. … Santa Clara head coach Herb Sendek was going for his 100th win as head coach with Santa Clara, but will have to go for it another night. This will be the third team Sendek has accomplished the feat with (191 with NC State, 159 with Arizona State).. ... Former Aggie greats Kris Clark and Jaycee Carroll were at the game, as was Spencer Nelson, who now does radio for USU. … USU recorded nine dunks in the game. … Taylor Funk has made the bucket to get the Aggies over 75 points in the first two games for free frozen custard at Culver’s, but it was Sean Bairstow that came through for fans Monday night. … Six Aggies had multiple assists, while Rylan Jones led the team with eight. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Broncos, 7-3.
Taylor Funk earned this in the first half. The graduate transfer had 19 of his game-high 22 points in the first half. The forward made 9 of 16 shots, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Funk also grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out three assists and came up with a career-high five steals in 27 minutes of action.
AROUND THE WORLD
The Aggies have players from six different countries, including the United States (Steven Ashworth, Landon Brenchley, Trevin Dorius, Conner Gillis, Mason Falslev, Taylor Funk, Isaac Johnson, Rylan Jones and Connor Odom), Australia (Sean Bairstow), Bahrain (Zee Hamoda), Poland (Szymon Zapala), Ukraine (Max Shulga) and England (RJ Eytle-Rock and Dan Aikin).
The Aggies head out on the road for the first time, traveling to southern California to face another team from the WCC. They take on San Diego (3-0) on Thursday at 8 p.m. The Toreros, who have five home games to start the 2022-23 season, beat NJIT on Sunday, 74-64.