There were a number of Aggies that came through when needed Thursday night in Utah State’s first road game of the young men’s basketball season.
In the end, it proved to be just enough as the Aggies left southern California with a 91-89 overtime win. Steven Ashworth hit a shot just inside the 3-point line with 3.9 seconds left in overtime to beat San Diego at Jenny Craig Pavilion in front of an announced 954 fans.
“There were some big shots all the way around,” Aggie head coach Ryan Odom said. “... Our offense got better and the ball started moving in our halfcourt offense in the second half. We had to figure out our halfcourt offense.”
That’s because the transition offense was not clicking as the Toreros (3-1) were quick to get back and not allow the Aggies (4-0) to get running. USU never panicked and made big shots when needed as different players seemed to shine at various stages of the game.
Max Shulga had 14 of his 20 points in the first half to keep the Aggies close at the break. Taylor Funk came through with 17 of his 20 points in the second half. Dan Akin had 15 of his team-high 21 in the second half. And, as already mentioned above, Ashworth made the game-winning shot with 3.9 seconds left in OT to finish with 10 points. It was the third straight game where four USU players reached double figures in scoring.
“Max knocked down some big shots,” Odom said. “Taylor made a big play for us near the end. … We had a lot of guys come up big.”
Funk, who was coming off a game where he scored 22 points – 19 in the first half – was just 1 of 6 from the field over the first 20 minutes. But, as Odom stated, he hit some crucial buckets and didn’t stop shooting.
“We want him (Funk) to keep shooting,” Odom said. “We believe in him. He got better looks in the second half than in the first.”
After Monday’s game in Logan, Funk had almost predicted the future by saying the Aggies couldn’t always rely on the 3-point shot. While that was a struggle in the early going Thursday, USU did eventually start hitting from outside the arc.
How balanced is this Aggie team when it comes to scoring? While Shulga, Funk, Akin and Ashworth all had their moments – as did Zee Hamoda, who netted seven of his nine points during a wild four-minute stretch in the second half where the lead changed hands eight times – no Aggie had more than three points in the overtime.
USU scored 13 points in the extra five minutes and five different Aggies scored in overtime. Sean Bairstow joined Akin, Shulga, Funk and Ashworth in registering points.
“I play with a lot of energy, so I needed to come in and play that way off the bench,” said Akin, who also grabbed a game-best 15 rebounds. “I needed to get everyone up, so we could turn it around.”
Akin, Ashworth and Hamoda all came off the bench. USU’s reserves outscored San Diego’s bench, 43-6.
“It’s tremendous,” Odom said of his bench. “I thought Zee (Hamoda) got us going when he subbed in. RJ (Eytle-Rock) did a nice job. Dan is obviously playing well coming off the bench. That’s not even mentioning Steven. All of these guys understand that. We are only as good as every player on our team.
“The engagement that our team has right now and the belief in one another is pretty strong (and) from guys that aren’t even playing. Mason (Falslev) is on the sideline pumping guys up. Isaac (Johnson) is doing the same thing. Landon Brenchley, Connor Odom, Conner Gillis, they are engaged in the game and pulling for their teammates. They have a feel for when we are right and when we are not, the entire team does. When guys are sitting on the bench and getting ready to go in, they are thinking, all right, help the team.”
There were some hurdles USU had to clear Thursday night. The Aggies fell behind 9-0 to start the game and also overcame a season-high 17 turnovers, as well as almost a season-low shooting from the foul line at 57.7 percent (15 of 26).
“We had turnovers that were not typical for us,” Odom said. “We worked our way through it.”
And what about the free throws?
“We shot free throws poorly throughout the game, pretty much,” Odom said. “We made them when we had to make them, just enough. There are a lot of things we can look at and point out that we did, made some extra passes.”
“We work on free throws every single day,” Akin said. “I was just happy to make big free throws at the end of the game.”
Akin made 7 of 11 shots from the foul line for the game, but did knocked down four in a row in the second half when USU was trailing by three.
Before heading to San Diego, Odom stressed the Aggies needed their defense to travel and play well on the road. Eric Williams Jr. went off for a school record 43 points and grabbed 13 rebounds before fouling out with 1:08 left in overtime. While the Oregon transfer was 13 of 20 from the field (65 percent), the rest of the Toreros made 18 of 55 shots (32.7 percent).
“There are a ton of things we can learn from this game,” Odom said. “It’s hard to withstand a guy scoring 40-something points on you and still have a chance to win. We tried to force some hard shots, but he was making them.
“Our defense certainly wasn’t as good as it’s been, but they play a little like we did last year. You can’t tell who the center is and who the point guard is a lot of times. That challenges your defense. For us to be in that situation and still come out with a win is a positive thing for us.”
Williams hit two 3-point shots in the final 20 seconds of regulation. The second one came with 3.2 seconds on the clock and tied the game at 78-78.
“You never feel you have it in the bag,” Odom said. “You want to force a hard shot. I thought Steven (Ashworth) did a good job of getting there and contesting it. We would have fouled if they would have thrown it out towards half court and put them on the line. I told the guys not to foul if they were going up for a shot. He (Williams) ended up getting it and made an unbelievable shot.”
But in the end, Ashworth came up with the game-winning basket to keep the Aggies perfect on the season.
USU is back home for two games. The Aggies host Oral Roberts (2-2) on Tuesday in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.