SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Missed 3-pointers and turnovers ultimately did the Aggies in Thursday morning in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Utah State could never really get on track from long range and took care of the ball better as the game wore on. However, No. 23 Missouri hit some big shots when it counted most. The seventh-seeded Tigers lived to play another day with a 76-65 victory in the first game of the day at the Golden 1 Center.
“First off, congratulations to Missouri, (head) coach (Dennis) Gates, his staff and his players,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “They had a great game plan today and played an excellent game.”
For just the second time this season, the Aggies (26-9) tasted defeat in back-to-back games. They lost by five in the Mountain West Tournament Championship. It was the ninth straight loss at the NCAA Tournament, as USU last won in 2001.
The Tigers (25-9) led for more than 33 minutes in the game. They hit 10 of 25 3-pointers, with five of them coming in the last 10 minutes of the game.
“I’m extremely proud of our ball team,” Gates said. “I think we did a tremendous job in our preparation, scouting report, but also research. Ever since we found out we would be playing Utah State, I think our studying behind the scenes from the staff, our coaches, but also our players played a part in our performance.”
It will be an all-Tiger match up in the Second Round as 15th seeded Princeton upset second-seeded Arizona in the second game at Sacramento, 59-55. The Tigers didn’t lead until the final minutes and will now take on Missouri on Saturday with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
Missouri shot 50.9 percent from the field for the game against USU. It is just the fourth time this season that an opponent shot 50 percent against the Aggies. Many shots were well guarded, but the Tigers made them anyway.
“They have some really good players,” said Aggie forward Taylor Funk, who scored a team-best 16 points in his final game at USU. “We knew he (Brown) can make those shots. We just wanted to make them as hard as possible. He really got that offense going.”
Those big shots by the Tigers came when it was looking like the momentum had swung USU’s way. Dan Akin had thrown down a pair of fastbreak dunks off passes from Steven Ashworth as the Aggies used an 8-2 run to take a 49-47 lead with 10:45 to play. Missouri called a timeout.
“Like coach said, we never gave up,” Funk said. “We didn’t hang our heads when those shots went in (for Missouri). We continued to battle. We got to give credit where credit’s due. I mean, that team is not here for no reason. We gave them our best shot, and they made more shots than us at the end of the day.”
Kobe Brown had a reverse dunk to tie the game. Then after an Akin bucket, Brown hit back-to-back 3-pointers under tight coverage. Those treys would ignite a 13-2 surge by the Tigers. Brown hit another shot from long range with a hand in his face, and D’Moi Hodge joined the 3-point party, giving Missouri a 62-53 lead with 5:25 to play.
“The big picture is this: our team is balanced,” Brown said. “I’m proud of the way we respond in adverse situations.”
It could have been worse as a technical was called on the Aggie bench as a USU reserve said something that caught the attention of an official after Max Shulga had been knocked to the floor in the paint and nothing was called. Missouri missed two frees awarded on the technical.
Funk and Ashworth hit 3-pointers to keep the Aggie faithful hopeful, but then Hodge hit a 3-pointer, as did Nick Honor. USU missed three straight shots from beyond the arc and fouled. Suddenly it was a 15-point deficit for the Aggies with 70 seconds remaining.
Joining Funk in double-digit scoring was Ashworth (12), Akin (12) and Sean Bairstow (10). Funk grabbed a team-best seven rebounds, as Ashworth, Bairstow and Max Shulga each had six boards. Ashworth dished out four assists, and Funk had three steals and two blocked shots.
Hodge finished with a game-best 23 points, while Brown had 19 points and a game-high eight rebounds. DeAndre Gholston netted 11 points, and Carter had 10 points and five assists.
The game started with a turnover for the Aggies, but they got a stop and Funk hit a pull-up jumper as USU took the first lead. A Funk layup made it 4-2.
The Tigers then took charge for the next three-and-a-half minutes.Missouri went on a 12-2 run as the Aggies went nearly three minutes without scoring and 3:32 between field goals. The Tigers took a 14-6 lead five-and-a-half minutes into the contest, as USU had six turnovers at that point.
“They (Tigers) obviously got off to a great start,” Odom said. “We turned the ball over quite a bit there at the beginning, then began to settle into the game, tried to tighten it up a bit heading into halftime.”
USU never got further behind than eight.
The Aggies got within 31-29 with 2:07 left in the opening half. The Tigers took a 35-31 lead into the break.
“We got it close enough to where it was, okay, our guys at least felt pretty good about it at that point,” Odom said. “We’ve been down at half before this season and been able to come back and win games.”
Five times this year the Aggies have rallied to win in the second half. USU went into halftime having missed all 11 of its 3-point shots.
“Nobody in the country, nobody in the basketball world expected first of all us to be here and secondly for Utah State to go 0 of 11 in the first half or make the amount of threes they made,” Gates said.
“We went into halftime knowing that we were down four and hadn’t made a three yet,” Ashworth said. “We had a lot of confidence in that.”
Missouri missed its first five shots and had a turnover to start the second half. USU could not take full advantage, but did get in front when Ashworth came up with a steal and hit a pull-up 3-pointer. It was the first trey of the game after missing the first 13 from long range. The Aggies would finish the game 4 of 24 from 3-point range.
“There has to be some credit given to Missouri, their style of defense, what they like to do to teams,” Ashworth said. “At times, even when you’re getting open looks in those situations, you can be a little rushed into those shots. I think the first half we had a little bit of that. At the same time, we just weren’t hitting the shots we normally make.”
Ashworth came up with a steal and hit a pull-up 3-pointer to give USU a 36-35 lead two minutes into the second half. There would be four lead changes and five ties until the deciding run by the Tigers.
Utah State is now 6-25 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. … The Aggies are now 18-109 all-time against Associated Press Top-25 opponents, including an 0-4 record under head coach Ryan Odom. … The 2022-23 Aggie team finished with 315 3-pointers on the season, which ranks second to the 2017-18 team that had 317. … The Aggies won the battle of the boards, 33-27, and lost for just the third time when outrebounding an opponent (22-3). ... The Aggie bench outscored the opponent for the 25th (21-4) time this season, 18-8. … USU finished with 12 assists and lost for sixth (1-6) when finishing with fewer dimes than an opponent, as Missouri had 15. … The Aggies shot a season-low five eight free throws, making five. … Ashworth reached double figures in scoring for the 30th time this season. He finished the season with 111 3-pointers this season, only trailing Jaycee Carroll (114), who set the school record during the 2007-08 season. … Akin scored in double figures 25 times this year. … Funk scored in double digits 23 times this season. … Shulga reached double digits in scoring for the 20th time this season. … The Aggies now trail in the all-time series with the Tigers, 2-1.
The lone dunk of the first half was a dandy as Bairstow flew in for a one-handed slam on a fastbreak as Ashworth got him the ball. Akin added to his season-leading total by running the court and being rewarded as Ashworth found him for two thunderous dunks.
Season leaders are: Akin 47, Trevin Dorius 30, Sean Bairstow 16, Taylor Funk 10, Zee Hamoda 5 and Szymon Zapala 1, Max Shulga 1.
It was a tough game for most of the Aggies in the shooting department. Funk gets the nod as he led the team in points (16), rebounds (17) and blocked shots (2). The graduate also had three assists. The forward played 32 minutes.
The Aggies will have to wait until next fall as their season comes to an end.
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