Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
SAN FRANCISCO — No 3-point shooting? No problem.
Entering its stiffest test to date against 7-1 San Francisco on Sunday evening, the Aggies were ranked No. 1 nationally in 3-point shooting. So playing a potential NCAA Tournament team on a semi-neutral court and shooting just 26.3% from beyond the arc would spell trouble for the Aggies, right?
Without point guard Rylan Jones and strong shooting performances from season leading scorers Steven Ashworth and Taylor Funk, Utah State comfortably defeated San Francisco 82-64 at the Chase Center to improve to 7-0.
The answer? Stiff defense and a relentless push at the basket on the offensive end. The Aggies forced 18 turnovers, shot 50.8% from the field, and had 48 points in the paint.
"If we want to be a great team — and we certainly do we want to be a great team — you have to be well balanced," head coach Ryan Odom said. "And if you're just a one-dimensional 3-point shooting team, you're not going to make it very far. You can't live and die by the three. And so for us, tonight the game called for us to drive to the basket and make plays near the rim, and our guys responded and did a great job."
Taking the lead on the offensive attack were guards Max Shulga, who had 16 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Sean Bairstow. Shulga was aggressive in the dribble drive and went a perfect 5-of-5 from the free-throw line.
Bairstow, who by a stroke of luck played in front of "50 kids and 10 coaches" from his high school in Brisbane, Australia, finished with 12 points. The kids from Churchie High, who are on a U.S. basketball tour, happened to be in the Bay Area and saw Bairstow shoot 6-of-7 from the field, which is arguably his best game this season.
Forward Dan Akin was a beneficiary of several drives and dishes and showed his nice touch around the rim to finish with a game-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
"The way we've been shooting the ball you can tell (San Francisco) didn't want us shooting 3s," Bairstow said. "They were locking us out a lot, so it just opened a lot of driving lanes. There wasn't much help defense coming except the five under the hoop, and then it was easy to make the dump-off pass to the big."
The Aggies looked poised to blow out USF and led by double digits at halftime, and then up 22 points with 11 minutes left in the game. But the hosts rallied on a 17-2 run orchestrated by Dons guard Tyrell Roberts, who finished with 18 points, and cut the Aggies lead to 66-59 with 7:41 left to play.
But the Aggies managed to reel in the momentum again. Funk, who finished with 13 points, got to the rim to end the Dons' run, then Akin had a put-back dunk to go back up by 11 with 5:33 to play. Utah State closed the game out on a 16-5 run of its own.
"Certainly, San Francisco made some great runs in there and got it tight in both tabs," Odom said. "But our guys answered each half and made some really key plays."
Beyond the four-minute scoring surge, Utah State held San Francisco's offense in check for most of the night. Standout guard Khalil Shabazz was just 3-of-9 from the field for 8 points and six turnovers. The Aggies held USF to 44.8% shooting from the field and 27.3% from beyond the arc.
"A key for us was intensity on defense in this particular game," Odom said. "We had lost it a little bit in the last three games, and we challenged our games in film and preparation and practice to really ramp it up defensively and play harder, quite honestly."
A win over a San Francisco team ranked 91st in KenPom ratings could hold up as the Aggies look to build their resume of NCAA Tournament aspirations; it also showed the team is capable of beating good teams without Steph Curry-esque performances from Ashworth.
With its next game against Loyola Marymount in Las Vegas on Saturday, the Aggies are one of 12 remaining undefeated teams nationally and improved to 44th in the KenPom rankings.