Utah State's Max Shulga standing strong for native Ukraine, Aggies' postseason

Max Shulga listens to music on his iPhone before a game with Utah State men's basketball during the 2021-22 season. Shulga, who hails from Kyiv, Ukraine, had 11 points and four rebounds in the Aggies' Mountain West Tournament opener, Wednesday, March 9, 2022 in Las Vegas. (Courtesy: USU Athletics)

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LAS VEGAS β€” Before Utah State tipped off its opening-round game in the Mountain West Tournament on Wednesday afternoon, head coach Ryan Odom heard a knock at his door near the locker room.

It was an Air Force Academy assistant coach, who had a plate of cookies decorated in blue and gold β€” the colors of the Ukrainian flag β€” to deliver to Aggies reserve Max Shulga. The assistant and a friend β€” a "pretty good baker," admitted Falcons coach Joe Scott β€” wanted to offer a token to Shulga, whose family lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, that there were people in the United States who appreciated him and his struggles following the Russian invasion of his homeland.

"What an amazing gesture," Odom said. "Obviously, Max has been going through a ton individually. His family lives right in Kyiv. And we all followed what's going on there right now, and it breaks our hearts.

"He's handled it with grace. He's handled it as well as anyone could possibly do it."

On Wednesday afternoon, Shulga's heart was still back home, with his family and country mates under an unimaginable burden. But his shot was right in the Thomas & Mack Center, one of five double-digit scorers in a win over the Falcons.

It's not the first time anyone has offered support for Shulga; in the Aggies' first game after the invasion of Ukraine, the school's student section created a makeshift Ukrianian flag as the sophomore checked into the game for the first time.

Every token of support β€” however small it may be β€” is appreciated.

Shulga moved from Ukraine at 14 to attend the Basketball School of Excellence in Torrelodones, Spain, but commuted home to visit family most years. And since the night Russia first launched an invasion against his homeland, the youngster who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish and English has spent countless hours on the phone with his family in Kyiv, texting, calling and FaceTiming to make sure they are all OK.

With Ukraine being nine hours ahead of Utah, much of those conversations β€” or frantic attempts at them, at times β€” take place in the middle of the night. But so far, they've all brought back good news.

"When I'm calling my parents, I'm happy to see them. But at the same time, I know there are relatives of other people dying out there, fighting for our country," Shulga said in a video produced by the university. "I'm happy that my family is safe. But at the same time, I'm mad at everything that is going on and I can't do nothing; I'm just here. It's mixed emotions, but it is what it is."

What he can do is play basketball, and his play has inspired his teammates and even several opponents. There are seven Ukrainian players in Division I college basketball, playing anywhere from San Francisco to the Bronx, and while Shulga doesn't know every one of them, he has reached out to a few as they've shared tokens of good will and messages of support.

Several call Kyiv home, like Shulga, while others are from more remote areas β€” and one, Grand Canyon's Dima Zdor, hails from Yalta β€” one of the southernmost cities in the country that resides in Crimea, the region that has been under Russian control since 2014.

But all of them have something in common, a trait held by most Ukrainians.

"I would say, a very tough people. Very patriotic," Shulga said. "We will stand our ground until we fall, basically."

Shulga was tough Wednesday, scoring 11 points with four rebounds in the Aggies' 27-point win over Air Force in Las Vegas, knocking down three 3-pointers β€” and each one another dagger in a game that started tight and grew to a lead as high as 31 in the second half.

As unimaginable as the pain may be in his personal life, the 6-foot-4 sophomore has been a rock for his teammates down the stretch of the regular season. Shulga, who averages just 4.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in 13.4 minutes, has had two of his better games of the year in the last week.

He hit three 3-pointer in the season finale on March 4 at San Jose State, tied his second-best mark of the season with four field goals, and then continued into Wednesday's postseason opener shooting 3 of 5 from the field and keying two separate runs that kept Air Force at arms' length β€” or more.

Midway through the first half, the Falcons pulled within one before Shulga hit his first three with 9:31 left in the half to go up 19-15. After an explosive dunk by teammate Sean Bairstow, Shulga knocked down back-to-back triples to key a 13-2 run that put the Aggies up 67-39 with 8:49 left.

Under the most unimaginable of circumstances, Shulga's play has come alive for the Aggies.

"His play has elevated," Odom said. "I just wanted to say publicly that his teammates and his coaches Loe him. And you know, it really did touch us that Air Force did that. They didn't have to do that. And I really appreciate them doing that."

His play has also elevated β€” and inspired β€” his teammates.

"I've got a ton of respect for that guy," said Utah State's Brandon Horvath, who had a team-high 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Falcons. "I can't imagine every day, waking up, talking to his family, not knowing what's going on.

"He's been playing great for us recently, and we just need him to keep doing that. Prayers out to everybody in his family."

And for the people back home, Shulga has a message for his homeland.

"We're going to win, for sure," he said with confidence. "We're going to stand through these tough first days, and then I know it will go smoothly."

Mountain West Tournament


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