In a one-point game, many plays can be scrutinized by both teams.
One more rebound, one less turnover, one more made field goal or one less foul to name just a few. Several Mountain West Conference men’s basketball games were decided by a single point Saturday, including the San Jose State at Utah State contest.
The Aggies trailed for a good chunk of the game Saturday in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum — 31 minutes and 49 seconds to be exact. In the end, USU made just enough plays to escape with a 75-74 win in front of the largest crowd of the season — 8,895.
“That was a really gutsy win by our team,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “... We just had to find a way to win this game. And the way you do that is by executing on offense and scoring and hustling and being stingy on defense. ... Most of these conference games are going to go right down to the wire, so you’ve got to figure it out and execute.”
The Aggies (15-4, 5-2 MW) outscored the Spartans (12-8, 3-4) 11-4 over the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game. A number of players were involved in making plays, either in defending, rebounding, passing or scoring. It came down to the final 22.4 seconds when San Jose State turned the ball over with the game tied at 74-74.
After calling back-to-back timeouts, USU got what it wanted. Guard Max Shulga drove to the basket and was fouled with 5.8 seconds to play. It was a play Aggie assistant coach Bryce Crawford had come up with.
“Bryce Crawford loves that play and suggested we run it,” Odom said. “We have run that play before at times. Everyone in the building probably thought Steven (Ashworth) was going to get the ball. ... Max is so fast. He is hard to guard going downhill. He did a really good job of cutting it back to the middle and got fouled. Got to give credit to the players for executing it and Bryce for suggesting it. I trusted him (Crawford).”
Shulga missed the first free throw to increase the anxiety in the building. The junior sank the second, but there was still plenty of time for the Spartans.
And San Jose State nearly sent most of those in the crowd home unhappy. Alvaro Cardenas got off a 3-point attempt, which was just off the mark.
“We just had to stay locked in,” Shulga said. “Defense wins games. We had to get those key stops.”
Ashworth led the Aggies with 19 points and six assists. Shulga (15) and Dan Akin (13) joined Ashworth in double-digit scoring. Taylor Funk and Trevin Dorius each had eight points. Akin led the team on the boards with seven. Sean Bairstow matched Ashworth with six assists.
Tibet Gorener scored a game-high 20 points for the Spartans, hitting 6 of 9 from 3-point range. Cardenas had 17 points, and Omari Moore netted 16 and dished out eight assists. Tolbert grabbed eight rebounds.
“We understood the shooting ability of this team,” Odom said. “Moore can make shots, (No.) 13 (Cardenas) can make shots and (No.) 31 (Gorener) is a shooter, they run plays to get him shots.”
San Jose State finished with 17 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. Four of those offensive boards came in the closing minutes and on one possession. The Spartans missed all five shots before Ashworth came up with a rebound.
“That was a huge play, and you can get discouraged when you give up two or three offensive rebounds on one play,” Odom said. “I felt like some of these were just a bad beat, it’s not like our guys weren’t blocking out. ... We forced some hard shots. I can’t say enough about our crowd and the impact our fans have on the game. It’s a huge impact. It’s so loud in there, and it’s hard to think at times.”
As the teams traded 7-0 runs twice in the second half, it brought back thoughts of the Aggies game against Weber State earlier this season. The Aggies could never shake the Wildcats, who answered each big shot USU made and ended up handing the Aggies their loss at home this season.
“It definitely gets in your head a little bit,” Shulga said. “It’s like, ‘wow, how can we not get a stop when we finally get ahead.’ It’s all about taking punches and punching right back. That’s what we tried to do.”
The Aggies have been able to do that more efficiently this season. After going 2-7 in games decided by five or less points last season, USU is 4-2 this year in such games.
Dealing with inconsistent whistles and some head-scratching calls, the Aggies never seemed to get rattled. Even an official physically pushing a Spartan out of the key so he didn’t have to call 3-seconds didn’t rattle USU. The fans were a different story.
“We had to adjust,” Shulga said of the officiating. “As the game goes on, we just have to adjust. We knew they (Spartans) were going to be really aggressive on the offensive board and try to be really physical with us. We just had to adjust, see how the refs were calling, what were they calling, what were they not calling just as the game went on. I think we did a pretty good job of that in the second half.”
The Aggies lost the battle of the boards for just the fifth time this season, 33-27. … USU is now 3-2 when trailing at halftime this season. ... The Aggie bench was outscored by its counterparts for just the fifth time this season, 28-21, and are 3-2 in those games. … USU finished with 19 assists and improved to 15-0 on the season when having more assists than the opponent, as SJSU had 14. … Steven Ashworth attempted a career-high 13 3-point shots, making five. … Trevin Dorius blocked two shots for the 13th time in his career, which is the most for the big man in a game. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Spartans, 69-22, and have now won nine in a row. The Spartans are the second-most played MW opponent. USU is 18-1 against SJSU since joining the MW and 40-4 against the Spartans in games played in Logan.
There were two in the game and both by the team leader. Dan Akin took passes from Sean Bairstow in each half and threw them down.
Season leaders are: Akin 24, Trevin Dorius 15, Bairstow 10, Taylor Funk 8, Zee Hamoda 3 and Szymon Zapala 1.
The Aggies head out on the road for two Mountain West games this week, beginning with first-place San Diego State (15-4, 6-1) on Wednesday at 9 p.m. The Aztecs won at Air Force late Saturday night, 70-60.