A team playing desperately for a win is one thing that cannot be scouted for. On Wednesday night, Utah State, losers of four straight and with six days to prepare for the Aztecs, played in desperation mode.
The Aggies, who shot poorly in conference play from beyond the arc, fired confident threes against the Aztecs, who rank in the top 10 in three-point defense in D1. They hit 10 threes and won 75-57.
“Utah State took out a lot of frustration out on us today,” coach Brian Dutcher said after the game.
The Aztecs are familiar with the Aggies. There is almost a rivalry between the teams, considering the high leverage games. In the past three seasons, the Aztecs are 4-5 against Utah State and are 1-2 in Mountain West title games against them. However, this was under the Craig Smith regime.
Now the Aztecs faced the Aggies in their fourth true road game this season. They were 1-2 thus far. This test in Logan was their biggest road challenge considering they lost both games last year on the road. But also, the game played in altitude is the Aztecs’ third game in five days, and they had only one day to fully prepare for an Aggie team that has a brand new system under head coach Ryan Odom.
Under Odom, the Aggies spread the floor and feed post cutters to create open looks from outside.
Due to the unfamiliarity of the new offensive scheme, the Aztecs gave up countless easy shots to start the game. Through back cuts and quick ball movement, SDSU uncharacteristically gave up open layups and open threes in the first half.
The Aztecs were huffing and puffing towards the end of the game. The altitude and fatigue certainly played a factor. SDSU came into the night ranked second in the conference in offensive rebounds, but tonight they had zero. Not a single opportunity for a second chance point. They lost the rebound battle 35-21. They also had 15 turnovers.
“We had zero offensive rebounds, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that from an Aztec team,” Dutcher said.
On the FS1 broadcast, there was a graphic showing the similarities between Matt Bradley and former Aztec Matt Mitchell. The similarities were uncanny.
After scoring 27 against the Rebels, he said what he is doing differently in his game, “I’m being a better teammate offensively, putting people in a better position to score,” Bradley said. “Just kind of really simplifying my game.”
The Aggies face-guarded Bradley, so he looked for his open teammates and didn’t settle for forced shots. He scored against taller defenders, and he dug deep into his bag of tricks and finished with 19 points, six rebounds, and five assists.
Playing with fatigued legs at altitude, the Aztecs needed a collective effort if they were to win the game. Chad Baker-Mazara, in a shoulder wrap, was the main contributor. He finished with 15. He made vital shots and provided much-needed energy off the bench. No other Aztec had more than seven points.
After picking up two early fouls, Nathan Mensah played only seven minutes in the first half. In six minutes of play in the second half, he had four fouls. Joshua Tomaic and Tahirou Diabate took his place but were not the same presence. Aguek Arop was needed to fill in for Mensah, but he injured his right hip in the first half and was not able to return. Dutcher said, “he fell and (the trainers) told us he couldn’t play the second half.”
Justin Bean is the best player on the Aggies. He’s the only player in the conference to average a double-double. Scoring 19 points per game with 10 rebounds. He missed Monday’s practice due to an illness but appeared healthy except for the black eye he received from a head collision with a teammate. The Aztecs made his life difficult in the first half, but he played like one of the best in the conference in the second half. He finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
The Aggies’ usual starting point guard, Rylan Jones, missed his second straight game with a concussion.
Steven Ashworth stepped up in his place. He came out firing. Even though he couldn’t be missed on the court in his bright lime green shoes, the Aztecs couldn’t find him from beyond the arc. He made multiple wide-open looks and opened the game with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three. He finished with 17. The Aggies had a collective effort. They had seven players score more than 7 points.
To end the first half, the Aztec defense seem to acclimate to the new-look Aggies as they finished the first half on a four-and-a-half-minute scoring drought. But this didn’t continue into the second half.
Similar to the Boise State loss, the Aggies began the second half on a 13-2 run and found multiple open looks. They scored 43 second-half points. “I had to use two timeouts in the first half,” Dutcher said. “I didn’t have a timeout every time they made a run on us.”
The Aggies came into the night with a 1-5 conference record, but this Aggie team is much better than they look on paper. Early in the year, they defeated potential tournament teams in Oklahoma and Richmond. But as of late, they’ve lost to four of the best teams in the Mountain West, and the losses were by a combined 15 points. They have also been without multiple key contributors at points this season, such as Brock Miller, Sean Bairstow, Rylan Jones, and RJ Eytle-Rock.
“These were two good teams tonight,” Dutcher said. “Unfortunately, they were much better today.”
Dutcher is still optimistic after the tough defeat. “I told them a year ago in (Logan), we got beat twice and were 3-3,” Dutcher said. “Then we won the conference, didn’t lose a game the rest of the way.” He continued, “I got a good locker room full of kids that won’t take it lightly.”
‘The Show’ and the Aggies student section ‘The Hurd’ have a rivalry as they dispute who created the “I Believe” chant. ‘The Show’s motto of “often imitated, never duplicated” was on full display tonight. At Viejas, ‘The Show’ holds a banner before the game over all the students’ heads, the Aggies students did the same, but they held the banner of their logo backward. But it was ‘The Hurd’ who got the last laugh tonight as they chanted “just like football” as the final buzzer sounded to give a final dagger in the heart to Aztec fans.
The Aztecs finally get some much-needed rest as their next game isn’t until Monday, Jan 31, against New Mexico at Viejas.