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Utah State shoots way past Washington State, wraps up nonconference slate

Utah State guard Rylan Jones (15) directs his team in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against BYU Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Provo, Utah.

Utah State guard Rylan Jones (15) directs his team in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against BYU Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Provo, Utah. (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

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LOGAN — Utah State wrapped up its nonconference slate in Hawaii on Christmas afternoon by adding a nice bow to its resume.

Facing its lone Power Six opponent of the schedule in Washington State in the third-place game of the Hawaii Diamond Head Classic, the Aggies lit up the Stan Sheriff Center with a barrage of 3-pointers en route to a convincing 82-73 win over the Cougars.

Utah State finished 11-of-17 from 3-point range with 21 assists, and six players finished in double digits. The Aggies led by as much as 23 points with 8:48 left in the game before Washington State went on a late run.

Two days after an underwhelming offensive performance in a loss to SMU, it was the best possible result as the Aggies head into Mountain West play.

"Obviously, we would love to have had that last game and be playing in the championship," head coach Ryan Odom said. "But we earned our way into this game, and we had to make sure that we gave our best effort in this one. Our goal, certainly, was to come out of here with as many wins as we could, and getting two wins here against two quality opponents was a positive.

Odom returned to his early season lineup and started Rylan Jones and brought Steven Ashworth off the bench. The switch proved beneficial as the offense flowed as well as it has in several weeks.

After playing just 14 minutes against SMU, Jones played 28 minutes and finished with 9 points and four assists while largely dictating the Aggies' offensive flow. Back as the sixth man, Ashworth filled into his role nicely and went 3-of-3 from deep for 12 points.

Odom said he wanted to make the switch sooner, but the timing with Jones' return from his concussion and the game slate hadn't lined up yet.

"It was just a matter of time before we decided to do it," Odom said. "And I didn't want to necessarily do it right after a loss against Weber State. And coming out of the SMU game, Rylan only played 14 minutes. So I talked about Steven and Rylan, and Steven's all about doing whatever is right for this team."

While going 65% from 3-point range isn't sustainable long term, it wasn't a coincidence they won on Sunday afternoon, either. Working together to create space offensively through its passing and transition offense proved to be an elite formula to blow past a Pac-12 foe.

"We feel like we have good shooters and we want to make sure that our guys are encouraged to take the right shots," Odom said. "I think our shot selection in Game 2 we were a little bit rushed. We watched a lot of film that night right after the game. The guys took it to heart and they were ready to play today."

The shooting barrage began when Sean Bairstow forced a steal and kicked it out to Taylor Funk for a wide-open corner 3-pointer to go up 11-9 early in the game. On the next possession, Ashworth was open in the corner and hit his first 3-pointer to start a quick 8-0 run and give the Aggies a 21-13 lead midway through the first half.

Washington State cut the lead to 21-18, but then Utah State's 3-point wave heated up a notch. Max Shulga, Bairstow and RJ Etyle-Rock all chipped in, and the Aggies led 42-29 at halftime.

The second half wasn't without some drama; Shulga was ejected on a double technical after he argued a call, which resulted in four straight technical shots for the Cougars, who cut the deficit to 10 with 12:55 left to play.

Moments later, Jabe Mullins was ejected for a questionable Flagrant 2 foul when he wrapped his arm around Ashworth; and the Aggies responded with a 10-0 run, punctuated by a 3-pointer by Jones to go up 71-51 with 10 minutes remaining.

With the win, Utah State wraps up nonconference play with an 11-2 record and Quad 2 wins over Santa Clara, Oral Roberts, Loyola Marymount, San Francisco and Washington State; and Quad 4 losses to Weber State and SMU.

The Aggies open conference play at home against Fresno State on New Year's Eve.

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