LOGAN — Just prior to the under-four minute media timeout in the second half, Danny Sprinkle called timeout. His Aggies were on the brink of blowing a 10-point lead to visiting San Diego State in a crucial battle for first place in the conference. The score still showed a lead for Utah State, though, 59-58. So, the message was all about keeping its composure.

“It was really just stay calm. Stay calm,” USU guard Darius Brown said of the emphasis of that timeout. “We have the lead still. We’re right where we want to be. We’re at home, up one, four minutes.”

The Aztecs were on a 7-0 run that allowed them to cut the lead down. Utah State hadn’t been keeping its composure, committing turnovers and missing scoring opportunities.

But when plays needed to be made, the Aggies made plays.

Isaac Johnson started things off by grabbing two offensive rebounds on one play, the first on a missed 3-pointer and then after a miss on his own putback. It was a small play on the stat sheet but a massive play for momentum that both Darius Brown and Sprinkle brought up unbidden postgame.

He finished the play by laying the ball through the rim to give Utah State some breathing space. On the other side, USU got its first defensive stop in nearly three minutes. That set up one of the biggest shots of the season so far.

Brown worked the ball into the post with a pass to Great Osobor, matched up with Jaedon LeDee. Osobor rolled toward the basket but had his shot rejected so hard by the help defense it made its way back to Brown on the right wing, who promptly passed it back into Osobor. Uncharacteristically, Osobor missed again but Mason Falslev tipped the rebound back out to Brown, who promptly rose and fired to hit his fifth 3-pointer of the night.

“Shout out to Mason for crashing,” Brown said. “We were talking about rebounding and Mason came in and crashed and just got a tip. And I happened to be right in the area. Landed right to me. I saw the shot clock was — I knew the ball didn’t hit the rim — and the shot clock was at like two, so I knew I just had to put it up. But luckily, when he tipped it, I caught it in perfect rhythm. So it was fortunate that Mason was there and made a winning play to tip it and I was able to hit the shot.”

That put Utah State up by a crucial six point, 64-58, with two minutes left to play, and the Aggies would close it out to secure a 68-63 victory over the 19th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs.

Brown’s 3-pointer, and to be fair, that whole sequence — the Aggies nearly giving up the lead but then pushing back ahead — exemplified an entire second half full of the top two teams in the Mountain West throwing haymakers. There were five runs of 5-0 or more between the two teams.

The Aggies were ready for this kind of fight, though. They’d heard the outside noise where fans were doubting the team after a 20-point loss to Colorado State.

“People hit the panic button on us sometimes when games go bad,” Brown said. “We knew this whole week what it was, defense rebound, defense rebound, and if we limit their second chance points we’ll be fine. So I think we knew what we had to do, especially after the road trip.”

This game against San Diego State provided the Aggies a chance at redemption for last Saturday’s game, and a proving grounds on a national stage.

“I told those guys before (the game),” Sprinkle recalled, “I said ‘You got to go show how great you are today. This is why you came to play in the Mountain West. You’re on national TV playing a national runner-up. Go show who you are tonight.’ And they did.”

USU matched every degree of its foe’s physicality, which is exactly what the team needed to do. They knew what had been missing. When asked about not giving up as many points in the paint (26 tonight vs 48 at Colorado State), Brown had a one-word response: “pride.” Sprinkle, asked about the defense, which set the tone by forcing seven misses on SDSU’s first eight shots, also had a one-word response: “effort.”

A prizefight within this prizefight teams (previously) tied atop the Mountain West was Osobor vs LeDee. The two frontrunners for the Mountain West Player of the Year were at peak form. Osobor shot 7 of 10 from the field for 17 points, adding seven rebounds and a season-best seven assists (plus two blocks and two steals), while LeDee hit tough jump shot after tough jump shot, ending the night with 23 points.

“That was two big hogs, just literally mud-wrestling the whole game. (Osobor) and LeDee are two of the best bigs in the country,” Sprinkle said, adding a visual aid of smacking his hands together to emphasize the physicality of the matchup. “They weren’t fouling each other. It was great offense and defense. It was fun to watch. And LeDee played tremendous too.”

“I love matchups like that,”Osobor said. “When you get to play against the best players, it gets me going. I went to bed last night excited. I was excited to play against (LeDee).”

Getting stops when LeDee put up a shot — or just getting the ball out of his hands in the post — was a key all night for the Aggies. And while Osobor usually drew that matchup, Kalifa Sakho also had his name called often. And did he ever respond. Statistically, Sakho will go down as a footnote, with just two points, two rebounds and four fouls to his name. But his effort in every other way impacted the game.

“He had a great contest on LeDee. It was one of the only jump shots that LeDee missed,” Sprinkle said. “He was battling down there.”

In short, the defense played its part, with everyone chipping in, from Sakho, to Brown, to Osobor, Johnson and the rest.

Utah State’s offense also did its part, especially Osobor and Brown who combined for 42 points (25 from Brown with the 17 from Osobor). It’s Brown’s third game in his last four outings where he’s scored at least 18 points.

“He’s one of the best point guards that I’ve played with in my whole life,” Osobor said. “When you have someone like that, it gives you confidence.”

In claiming victory the Aggies have won three straight battle-for-first-place games — twice against Boise State and now against the Aztecs. With four games left, though, this could be the most important. USU faces the three teams at the bottom of the Mountain West standings in its next three games with a regular season finale against New Mexico.

With luck, the Aggies could seal the deal on a share of the regular season conference title before that game against the Lobos, but a win would almost surely seal it, assuming no slip-ups against the bottom-feeders of the conference.

For now, though, Utah State will take a well-earned rest, with a week before travelling to face Fresno State. The Aggies have concluded their toughest six-game stretch of the year, and come out still on top of the conference.









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