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LOGAN — There are plenty of ways to gauge the improvement of a basketball team over the course of a season: shooting percentages, a team's effort level or results.
Utah State has improved in each of these categories as of late; however, the Aggies had a foolproof opportunity Tuesday evening to see how real that improvement truly was in a rematch against an opponent who'd beaten them earlier in the season.
On Tuesday night in the Spectrum, the Aggies played Air Force, who they lost to 49-47 on Dec 29. The grudge match went slightly different at home as Utah State handled Air Force 73-46.
Perhaps it was the help of the annual "Spectrum Magic" night that made the difference. A near-capacity student section repped yellow, orange and gray t-shirts, each matching the color of seats they were laid upon pregame. They provided an intimidating atmosphere for the visiting Falcons.
But while shades of the warm colors from the sidelines flashed through the Airmen's peripheral vision throughout the game, more impactful were the flashes of Aggies players cutting to the rim and the ball darting around the court.
Utah State had more assists with three minutes remaining in the first half Tuesday night (12) than it did the entire first matchup against Air Force (12) and finished with 20 on the game. In contrast to shooting just 36% from the field in Colorado Springs, the Aggies shot 63% on 26-of-42 shooting at home.
"I think there was a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth from last time when they beat us, so we had a little extra motivation coming in," senior forward Brandon Horvath said. "We just played way harder than we did the first time."
Utah State is now 4-5 in conference play and 13-9 on the season. The team was bottom dwellers a week ago, but a three-game winning streak puts them in seventh in the conference. Horvath credits the efficient ball movement and shooting for the sudden turnaround.
"We feel like that's our identity," he said. "In that little stretch we just tried to create for ourselves a little too much and we watched film on it and we're getting back to it."
Utilizing his size advantage, Horvath, who can be often be timid in the paint, was unstoppable in stretches, driving downhill and finding touch around the hoop; he finished 7-of-8 shooting for 17 points.
Having the ball down low benefited the rest of the team, too. Horvath was able to hit slashing teammates — he found Justin Bean for a couple of easy layups — or kick outside. He finished with seven assists and nine rebounds, a near triple-double.
Sean Bairstow, who has struggled shooting from deep, took advantage of the space Air Force allotted him on the perimeter and used it as sort of a launching pad to get to the rim. He finished with three dunks and 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
An ever-confident Steven Ashworth, who is making a compelling argument to stay in the starting lineup even though Rylan Jones has returned from concussion protocol, tacked on 10 points, and Bean added 17 points. Jones finished with 5 points in nearly 18 minutes of play in his return.
"A lot of contributors throughout the night," head coach Ryan Odom said. "It was great to have Rylan get back out there; it was fun to see him do what he does. I thought Steven was fabulous, got us off to a really good start. Justin and Brandon, obviously, were tremendous; Sean had a great game," Odom said.
Defensively, the Aggies were stout. Air Force, a 3-ball heavy offense, was just 2 of 15 from beyond the arc and shot 36% from the field. No Falcons players reached double figures.
AJ Walker, who went for 16 points in the first matchup, was limited to just 8 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Freshman Ethan Taylor opened the game with 7 points but injured his ankle 11 minutes in and didn't return.
Competitive early, Bairstow had the highlights of the game with two alley-oop dunks. The first one, he broke behind the Falcons' transition defense and received the pass near the logo from Ashworth. On the second, he flashed from the baseline and caught the pass from Jones, who came off the bench, and threw it down.
"He can make some explosive plays," Odom said. "The alley-oop in transition — I was looking, I was like is that Bean? Nope, that was Sean."
It was a 3-point game with 7:57 remaining in the first half before Utah State started their run. Bean hit a midrange turnaround, followed by a top of the key 3-pointer. The team followed that up with a dazzling no-look pass from Bean to R.J. Etyle-Rock. Bairstow finished the half with an emphatic slam to give Utah State a 36-23 lead.
Things got choppy in the second half, as the Aggies gave up nine turnovers and fell out of their rhythm to an extent. But defense and free throws kept them ahead — they shot 15 of 15 from the line in the second half.
In the final stretch, Utah State's offense got it rolling again. Leading 60-41 with 5:56 to play, Horvath dished it to Bean for the layup and Jones had a dish from Ashworth. With 3:04 remaining, the student section chanted "up by 30" and the Aggies coasted to a 27-point win.
"Excited for the guys but certainly we're not satisfied, there's a lot of ball to be played," Odom said.
The Aggies continue their homestand by hosting San Jose State Thursday evening.