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Utah State holds off Utah Tech upset bid, improves to 6-0

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LOGAN β€” Utah Tech was bent on making its first-ever game with Utah State a memorable one on Thursday night.

Heavy underdogs in front of 6,777 fans in the Spectrum, the Trailblazers prodded the Aggies nearly the entire 40 minutes, spurning every Utah State run and keeping the game within single digits into the final minute.

Backed by 27 points from Steven Ashworth, the Aggies outlasted the upset bid to win 86-81 and improve to 6-0 on the season. Utah Tech fell to 3-5 with the loss.

Ashworth shot 7-of-12 from 3-point range; and Taylor Funk added 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the win. Cameron Gooden had a game-high 29 points for Utah Tech, 20 of which came in the first half.

"Really proud of our guys for fighting through that game and figuring out a way to come out with a victory," Utah State coach Ryan Odom said. "I thought Utah Tech played a great game. They had an excellent game plan; they're a physical team."

Utah State, who was without point guard Rylan Jones most of the game after he took a blow to the face early in the first half, found themselves in trouble early in the second half as Utah Tech led 41-36.

The Aggies responded with a 9-0 run and it seemed they'd pull away. But in a game that had 24 lead changes and nine ties, Utah Tech persisted. The Trailblazers' largest deficit was 11 points, and they'd cut it to 5 with just over six minutes to play on a Gooden 3-pointer.

But Utah State did enough and its offense came alive in the waning moments. The Aggies found Dan Akin on a low block for a pair of easy dunks, then the ball was tossed around the horn to Ashworth, who buried a 3-pointer to take an 81-72 lead with 1:54 to play. A key facilitator in the waning moments was Max Shulga, who finished with 10 points and 10 assists.

"We just had a couple of times where they saw our defense and they attacked an area that they saw was open, and we didn't adjust to it," Utah Tech coach Jon Judkins said. "We didn't rotate as well as we needed to. We gave Ashworth a couple of really wide-open 3s and then he got hot and started hitting some tough ones."

Gooden had his way in the first half and came off screens and hit open jumpers. He was 7-of-8 shooting in the first half; his three made free throws to end the half tied the game at 36-36.

The Aggies defensive effort against him in the second half held him to 9 points on 2-of-8 shooting, which was a key difference.

"I think it came down to being a little more physical and having little more grit in our defensive strategy," Ashworth said. "And just taking a little more pride on defense. He's a very talented player as we saw. He hit a lot of tough shots and, at the same time, he got in his rhythm.

"In the second half, we were a little bit better making sure we fought over the ball screens or got to different options so he wasn't able to get his first best look in the offense."

Utah Tech, ranked 243rd in Ken Pom, punched above its weight most of the game, and the narrow win from the Aggies drops their ranking from 47th to 56th. As a team, the Trailblazers went 24-of-50 from the field and 52% from 3-point range; Utah State was 30-of-55 from the field and 32% from beyond the arc.

Utah State faces San Francisco in arguably the biggest game of the nonconference slate on Sunday. Jones' status for the game is uncertain, but the Aggies will have to "play better" moving forward.

"They got to the line too much against us and were probably the more physical team throughout, so that's something that we can learn from going forward," Odom said. "Never going to complain about a victory."

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