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LOGAN — With 3:55 remaining in Utah State's Tuesday night matchup against UNLV, the Aggies' chances of nabbing a home conference win hung in the balance.
Moments after the Aggies committed its 21st turnover, which resulted in a breakaway dunk from UNLV's Luis Rodriguez to give the Rebels a 66-65 lead, the team huddled for a timeout as it looked to settle down. Assistant coach Matt Henry chimed in and told the team, "We're gonna win this game."
In front of 7,611 rambunctious fans in the Spectrum, Utah State willed their coach's comment into existence.
The Aggies stopped the turnovers, and the team's offense followed.
Steven Ashworth buried a 3-pointer to go up 71-69 with a minute left to play; and following a UNLV offensive foul, Sean Bairstow hit a midrange fadeaway as the shot clock expired to all but ice the game. In the end, the Aggies pulled away for a 75-71 win.
"I think (Henry) just vocalizing that was a big thing for us moving on to those (final) minutes that, 'hey, we're a great team, and we can make plays, so let's go do it,'" Ashworth said. "That's what we did tonight."
A lengthy, athletic Rebels squad hungry to end a two-game losing streak did what it does best: create havoc on defense and force steals. The Rebels scored 27 points off turnovers and kept an otherwise hot shooting Aggies side in disarray for stretches of the evening.
Utah State led 46-37 at halftime — thanks to a jaw dropping six made 3-pointers from Taylor Funk in the first half — but the full student section clad in black watched nervously as the Rebels defense stymied the hosts and turned the momentum in the second half.
Funk was run off the 3-point line and finished with no second half points, while Ashworth struggled to find open looks. A shorthanded Aggies team, who was without Rylan Jones (injury) and Zee Hamoda (illness), looked worn out in spurts, and it led to 12 forced second half turnovers by UNLV.
"They're just always coming after you," Utah State head coach Ryan Odom said. "There were certainly moments and times within that game where our guys did a really nice job with it, as evidenced by 21 assists, and there were some times, obviously, that we didn't."
Forward Keyshawn Hall, who prodded the hosts down low, finishing with a team-high 19 points. The Aggies defense switched to a two-three zone to condense the paint — it worked for a stretch — but then the hot hand of Jordan McCabe, who finished with 18 points, kept it honest. McCabe hit a corner 3-pointer against the zone defense with 2:19 to play to give UNLV a 1-point lead.
Utah State wasn't about to give up another tightly contested Mountain West game, though.
The Rebels got mixed up on a switch, which left Ashworth wide open at the top of the key for the go-ahead triple with 1:09 remaining. Hall bulldozed Dan Akin on the other end for an offensive turnover, and then with two seconds left on the shot clock, Max Shulga inbounded the ball to Bairstow, who faded away to hit the shot and send the Spectrum into a frenzy.
Sean Bairstow puts Utah State up 73-69 with 21.9 to play. pic.twitter.com/NjZAaCwDfH— Jacob Nielson (@Jacobnielson12) January 18, 2023
"Coach had a great play that we executed well," Ashworth said. " We had Option 1, it wasn't there; Option 2 wasn't there, so we knew Option 3 was gonna be there, and Shawn made a big time shot."
The Aggies finished the night 51% from the field and 44% from beyond the arc. Funk finished with 20 points, nine of which came on back-to-back-back 3-pointers in the first half to give Utah State a 38-32 lead. Ashworth added 14 points, and Trevin Dorius had 10 points for the Aggies.
In the lens of building a tournament resume, Tuesday night's was a Quad 3 win for the Aggies. If the Rebels, who are currently ranked 79th in the NET rankings, can climb four spots or higher by the end of the season, it will become a Quad 2 win.
More importantly, however, is it's a win against an athletic, physical team that can give Utah State confidence it has the skill to handle physical Mountain West matchups and the mental toughness to answer in the clutch.
Perhaps the determined words from Henry were just what the Aggies needed.
"It may sound cliche," Ashworth said, "but I think belief was a big factor in tonight's victory."