Josh Uduje and Darius Brown II

With under a minute to play in the first half of Utah State’s road contest with Wyoming, the Aggies trailed by five points, 41-36, to the home-team Cowboys in part due to some rather poor defense. The most recent example at that point having been a dunk by Wyoming’s freshman forward Cam Manyawu after he faked fellow freshman Karson Templin with a fake screen then cutting to the basket and getting a hammer dunk.

“We knew that what we was doing in the first half was not ourselves,” USU guard Josh Uduje said. “Coach always talks about being the aggressor, and honestly Wyoming in the first half was the aggressors.”

That USU was down by five at that moment in time was actually a small miracle as that deficit was half of what it’d been just a few minutes early when the Aggies trailed 35-25.

But six seconds after Manyawu’s dunk brought the Wyoming fans to their feet, Darius Brown pulled up from 28 feet and drilled a long triple, bringing the Aggies within two points just minutes after they’d faced a double-digit hole. That three capped a 15-point first half in which Brown, and Josh Uduje, who had nine points in the opening 20 minutes, carried a USU squad in desperate need of being carried.

“Darius Brown was unbelievable tonight,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “And to be honest we lose by 20 if he doesn’t play the way he does. And Josh, he was tremendous, getting the ball to the rim, hitting some threes.”

Brown would finish the game with 24 points, eight rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers with Uduje adding 20 points himself to lead the Aggies through a late first-half/second half rally to come away with an 84-76 victory in Laramie.

Through the first 16 minutes of the first half, Utah State simply did not meet the standard Sprinkle’s set for this squad. Wyoming, on the other hand, played close to its full potential. Brendan Wenzel, who’d scored 20-plus points in two of his previous three games heading into Wednesday, went off again hitting multiple 3-point shots early and also slashing to the rim and causing issues for the USU defense. Sam Griffin came alive late in the first half, adding a pair of 3-pointers himself to pile on the Aggies.

Wyoming’s guards weren’t the only ones getting in on the action. Mason Walters and Manyawu dominated the boards, finished shots in the paint and drew fouls on the Aggie bigs. They had USU completely on its heels the entire first half.

“Their bigs kicked our bigs’ butts. And that’s just the truth,” Sprinkle said. “They played harder. They played more physical. I thought they did a great job playing post defense and really setting the tone early.”

At the 3:54 mark of the first half (the moment when Wyoming established that 35-25 lead), the Cowboys were shooting 54 percent from the field. But the Aggies, coming out of the final media timeout of the half, threw their first major punch in the eventual comeback over the final four minutes. They outscored their opponent 14-8 to close the half, cutting Wyoming’s lead down to just four points, 43-39, at the break.

“That the last three to four minutes set the tone for how we was gonna go into the second half,” Uduje said.

Brown was responsible for nine of the Aggies 14 points down the first-half stretch, scoring six himself on a pair of threes and then assisting Great Osobor on an and-one.

Utah State kept the pressure up in the opening minutes of the second half, going on a 9-0 run just minutes after coming out of the break. Isaac Johnson scored five straight points, Kalifa Sakho added a free throw and Brown gave the Aggies a 48-45 lead with 15:49 left in the second, their first lead in 21 minutes of game time.

The major difference between the two halves, though, wasn’t the offense, as the Aggies shot well in both frames, putting up roughly 40 points in each. It was USU’s defense that stepped up. Remember that 54 percent Wyoming shot through 16 minutes? From that point on, the Cowboys shot 36 percent. A key points within that key turnaround was USU allowing a stellar 46 percent on Wyoming’s attempts at the rim.

“We chested up. We went and we jumped and we stayed vertical,” Sprinkle said. “We’ve been giving up a lot of and-ones the last couple of weeks and so we’ve been working on that.”

As Wyoming began to fizzle, the Aggies gradually built momentum. Uduje took over the Aggie offense mid-way through the second half, scoring nine of the Aggies 11 points in a five-minute span. Most of that damage was done in the paint as Uduje continually backed down his defenders in the post and finishing in the mid-range.

“In the first half, I felt like we shot too many threes,” Uduje said. “I saw a smaller guy on me. So after the first post-up went well, I was like, ‘OK, cool, I’m going to keep on attacking them.’”

There wasn’t a pulling away until quite late with the Cowboys staying within one or two possessions for virtually all of the second half. Then, in the final four minutes, Utah State threw the knockout punch, a 6-0 run that pushed its lead to 10 points, 76-66 with Ian Martinez hitting a dagger 3-pointer with 58 seconds left. After that, it was a matter of free throws.

While victory didn’t come pretty, the “W” is all that matters for the Aggies who remain in sole possession of first place in the Mountain West, keeping ahead of New Mexico and San Diego State which are hot on their heels. The next test will be finding a way to win at Colorado State on Saturday, a team that has yet to lose a conference game at home.

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