Through the first seven-and–half minutes Wednesday night at UNLV, the Aggies had given up 15 points. The Rebels were on pace to score 80 points.
Obviously, there are ebbs and flows in men’s basketball games, but the fact was Utah State was giving up points early. That changed dramatically.
At that mark in the first half, the Aggies trailed 15-12. USU turned up the heat on defense and went on to beat UNLV 91-66 in a crucial Mountain West Conference game for the Aggies.
“I’m always critical of both (offense and defense),” USU head coach Ryan Odom said after the game. “We can always improve and should be aspiring to improve on both sides of the ball.”
After that early lead, the Rebels (17-12, 6-11 MW) would go 5:38 minutes without scoring. They had nine empty possessions that consisted of nine missed shots and two turnovers.
During that offensive dryspell for UNLV, the Aggies (23-7, 12-5) would score 14 unanswered points to get in front for good after four lead changes and four ties in the early going of the contest. Steven Ashworth would score seven points for USU.
“Defensively, we used the off week to come together and work on some things,” said Ashworth, who would finish with a game-best 27 points and seven assists. “We set some goals on what we wanted our defense to be.”
The Aggies would take a 44-32 lead into halftime. Double that score and you get 88-64, which was almost the final score, but games rarely work out that way.
In the second half, the Rebels made a push a few minutes in. They scored eight straight points as USU went 2:40 minutes between scoring.
Suddenly, the Aggies lead was down to 49-45.
After a timeout, USU once again seemed to get more aggressive on defense. Ashworth scored all eight points of a 8-0 run, and the Rebels had three straight turnovers. USU used a 14-1 surge to take charge.
“We knew we couldn’t let their runs affect what we were trying to accomplish,” Ashworth said. “I think we answered really well and stayed composed. … I’m trying to make sure I’m assertive in the right ways.”
The Rebels would go exactly 10:26 between field goals as the Aggies built a lead of 24 with nearly seven minutes to play and would lead by as many as 29. UNLV would get to the free throw 11 times — once for a technical on Zee Hamoda for celebrating too much on a dunk — and make eight of them during the field-goal drought. The Rebels had five turnovers and had a shot blocked during that timespan.
UNLV would end up shooting 31.6 percent from the field for the game and made 8 of 23 from long range (34.8 percent). USU shot 61.8 percent from the field and made 10 of 21 (47.6 percent) from the 3-point line.
“We just have an unselfish team,” Odom said. “When you play that way, you end up with some easier baskets. Most teams are worried about how we shoot the basketball.”
The Aggies came up with 10 steals in the game and blocked three shots. USU came into the game averaging 4.9 steals an outing and the last time it had double figures in steals this season was way back on Nov. 14, 2022, coming up with 12 against Santa Clara.
“Even though we won some battles, we gave up too many offensive rebounds and fouled too much in the second half,” Odom said.
Over the last six games, the Aggies have not allowed an opponent to score more than 69 points and two of those contests were losses. USU has allowed an average of 64 points a game, while scoring 72.3. For the season, the Aggies are giving up 69.9 and scoring 78.8 points a game.
“If you look over the numbers, the past three or four games, if we were playing the defense at the rate we’ve been playing, we would be a top 25, top 15 team defense all season,” Ashworth said. “So, I think that goes a long way to say where we are at now. You want to be playing your best basketball in March.”
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