Utah State players look on from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

If you only counted the second half of Saturday’s Utah State/Colorado State matchup, it would have been a thrilling back-and-forth contest befitting two of the Mountain West’s top teams.

The only problem was that by the second half, Colorado State had built a 17-point lead (20 points in the early moments of the second). So the fact that the second half point differential was 32-29, just in favor of the Rams, is mostly a footnote to the final score of 75-55.

As to how Colorado State built that halftime lead, look no further than the battle inside the paint. Although the Aggies possessed the best bigman on the court for either side in Great Osobor (who ended the afternoon with a 15-point, 13-rebound double double), the Rams owned the paint in every respect. They won points in the paint (48-26) and the rebounding battle (45-32) by wide margins.

“Credit to Colorado State,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said after the game. “They they came in with an edge. They played desperation tonight and I didn’t have my group ready for that desperation.”

Colorado State’s guards are typically the main threat, but the Rams didn’t rely on their guards at all to build the first-half lead that would hang over the Aggies the rest of the afternoon. The first 11 points scored by CSU game from its bigs, led by Joel Scott who had seven of those points. Scott would end the game with 17 points, second on the Rams.

With all that success inside with its bigs, Colorado State seemed to see little need to even attempt shots outside the key for most of the opening half. Of CSU’s first 23 field goal attempts, 17 were layups or dunks. At halftime, at which point the Rams led 43-26, they had 32 points in the paint.

Opposing bigs having notable success in the paint has been an ongoing theme of recent games, Scott being just the latest example. Sprinkle said the main factor is “us not being physical enough.”

“We’re getting outworked a little bit in the post,” Sprinkle said. “People are getting too good a position. And then they’re just backing us down and we’re not giving resistance.”

Perhaps the most egregious display of USU’s lack of presence in the paint came from the disparity in rebounding, especially in the first half. Through the first 15 minutes of the game, Colorado State were as hot as a team could get shooting-wise, only missing seven field goals. But of those seven misses, the Rams rebounded six. By halftime, the Rams had more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Aggies had defensive boards (eight).

“(The Rams) were really physical on the backside of those rebounds,” Sprinkle said. “They just they just pushed us under the backboard and and we didn’t give them any resistance.”

As if all those problems weren’t enough, the Aggies added to them by shooting 34 percent in the first half, including 3 of 13 from three. They ended the game with a 38.6 field goal percentage — the third time in the last five games they’ve shot worse than 42 percent (all three games being losses). The 55 points is also the second-lowest scoring total of the season.

What few positives there were coming out of this loss were a few solid individual performances and one decent push to try and get back into the game early in the second half. Aside from Osobor’s 15 and 13, Ian Martinez tallied a solid 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting to pull him out of a bit of a shooting rut (had made just 28 percent of field goals the previous four games) and Javon Jackson came off the bench late to score 10 points in only 11 minutes played.

That “decent push” mentioned was a 6-0 run near the start of the second half (albeit countered immediately by a 4-0 CSU run) and later a 7-0 run near the mid-way point of the second half. It took the Aggies from down 20 points to down just 11 with 12:07 left in the game. That run brought some hope for the team as building blocks of a 20-point comeback . Utah State had made 5 of its last 8 field goals and the Rams were starting to miss a lot of shots (4 of 11 to start the second half.

But the run couldn’t last. Josh Uduje had a chance to cut the lead to single digits with a 3-pointer, but it missed (Sprinkle said he was ready to call timeout if Uduje had hit the three, presumably to set up a good defensive possession so they could “keep the pressure on them”), as did an Osobor layup that could have also cut it to nine, but then Colorado State broke off on a 6-0 run. The Aggies neve drew within 15 the rest of the way.

The best silver lining form this game, though, is the fact that Utah State still controls its own destiny for a regular season Mountain West title. Come Tuesday, the day of its next game, the Aggies will be in a tie for first place with the team it will face in said next game: San Diego State. Saturday’s loss just removes all margin for error. If Utah State has any chance at winning the regular season title, it must win at home against the Aztecs, and likely against New Mexico in the regular season finale, to secure the coveted championship.

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