LOGAN — After Utah State’s practice on Friday, head coach Danny Sprinkle ended the practice by talking to his players about the legacy that would be honored during their next game. Former head coach and Aggie legend Stew Morrill would have the court of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum named in his honor at halftime, a constant reminder of the legacy Morrill and his 402 career wins for the Aggies.
A specific point of that chat was that the team hadn’t honored that legacy the way they’d played on Tuesday against Nevada. Utah State’s 77-63 loss at home to Nevada was one of its poorer showings of the season, and first loss in the Spectrum this season.
“Tuesday wasn’t who we are,” Sprinkle later said. “And it wasn’t who we’ve been all year.”
The Aggies got Wednesday off (of which Sprinkle said “Thank God, because I needed a day away from them”) and had what Sprinkle called a “truth” film session, and then a practice for the ages.
“We had a great practice which was probably similar to one of Bear Bryant’s back in the day,” Sprinkle said, later adding the details that they were “if you gave up a post-hitch you just ran you know if you gave up an easy catch on D, you ran. And that was the aggressive mindset that we wanted to have.”
The emphasis on defense was so great, Sprinkle said they “didn’t do anything offensively.”
For Friday’s practice , Morrill sat in attendance, a living reminder of what the team represented, along with the static reminder of his signature which had already been painted onto the court in preparation for Saturday’s ceremony.
Prior to the game itself, Sprinkle didn’t spend his pregame locker room talk on X’s and O’s, or how they’d handle the Broncos’ frontcourt duo of Tyson Degenhart and O’Mar Stanley, or how they’d defend Max Rice to prevent him from having another 35-point game. It was all about the Aggies and how hard they needed to play. And at the end, Sprinkle wrote two words on the whiteboard.
After all the grueling preparation, facing the harsh realties of the two-game losing streak the Aggies were on, and with Stew Morrill himself looking on, Utah State absolutely crushed its foe. An 80-61 beatdown that thrilled the sold-out crowd that included six former USU head coaches (including Morrill) and roughly 65 former players.
“It means a lot,” USU guard Mason Falslev said of the win. “It goes back to when we were practicing in the summer we had a lot of Aggie legends come and talk to us, talk to our team and talk about the legacy that they left and we needed to build upon it so it was huge.”
Just as important as the legacy and emotional aspects of the win, Sprinkle called the victory “defining.” A win that helped the team discover who they are.
“I found out stuff about our team tonight,” Sprinkle said. “From a toughness standpoint. A connecting standpoint.”
One of the keys Sprinkle had been harping on with the team of late is to be the aggressor. Set the tone. And the Aggies did just that.
Or, more specifically, Mason Falslev did.
Falslev scored eight of the team’s first 10 points of the game, eventually finishing with a shiny new career high of 25 points. He made 10 of his 13 shots, slicing and dicing his way to the rim, but those made shots included a trio of 3-pointers.
“The start that he got us off to, it put everybody at ease, except for me,” Sprinkle said, adding a chuckle at the end. “But the rest of our team. You could see his aggressiveness fed everybody else.”
Just as important as Falslev’s offense (and probably more important) was the defense the Aggies brought to the table as a team. The most important stretch in the entire game was arguably a eight-minute span in the first half where Boise State missed 12 straight field goal attempts (and missing it’s only two free throw attempts in that stretch to boot). A game that had been 13-10 in favor of Boise State turned into 23-13 game for the Aggies.
Defending Degenhart and Stanley effectively would be a pivotal part of USU’s success. Late in the first half, the Broncos tried to spam isolations for those two, often focusing on whoever Great Osobor wasn’t guarding — which was usually Isaac Johnson up against Stanley. Johnson did give up a few extra buckets (it’s why BSU were going to that play so much) but easily made up for it by scoring 14 points, his highest total since…the last time the Aggies faced Boise State.
“We started walling up a little better at the rim,” Sprinkle said. “Stanley and Degenhart, they’re hard to guard. They’re big, they’re strong, and they got great touch around the rim and footwork.”
An underrated part of the defense by Johnson, and also Kalifa Sakho who split the task of defending those repeated isolations and post-ups with his fellow center, was the help from Darius Brown who often sprinted in to provide a sudden double team to break up the play and then sprint back to his own man.
“I thought our game plan was good. Sometimes we came and doubled, sometimes we didn’t. I thought Darius was phenomenal at it,” Sprinkle said.
Overall, though, Stanley and Degenhart’s impact was limited to just barely matching their combined points per game average of 28 points.
The double-digit lead earned in the first half with their defense, and enough quality offense, allowed the Aggies to play from ahead which they would do the rest of the game. The the Broncos ever got after the 9:46 mark of the first half was seven within points and the lead went as high as 20 in the late stages of the game.
While emotionally fulfilling, and a revival for the offense (shooting a solid 46 percent from the floor and hitting nine 3-pointers after back-to-back poor shooting nights), the win also moves Utah State into sole possession of first place, since, of the four teams tied for first coming into the weekend, the Aggies were the only ones to come away victorious. And if nothing else, being victorious and being in first place is a great way to honor Stew Morrill.