Cover Story: Aggies Knock Rams From Mountain West Peak
14 min read

Cover Story: Aggies Knock Rams From Mountain West Peak

(Free) Faced with its biggest test of the season thus far, Utah State was fearless, standing tall in the game's biggest moments to knock out 13th-ranked Colorado State. Cover Story:
Cover Story: Aggies Knock Rams From Mountain West Peak

LOGAN – Deputy athletic director Jerry Bovee stood just outside the tunnel leading back to Utah State's locker room, taking in a scene of jubilation and pandemonium. A man in his position is rarely afforded the luxury of lingering, and this moment was fleeting, but no one would blame him for his brief repose. Exactly one day short of nine months prior, Bovee made official the hiring of Danny Sprinkle as Utah State's 21st head basketball coach.

Bovee spoke at the time, both in a university statement and three days later as he introduced Sprinkle at a press conference in the Wayne Estes Center, about how well-matched the school and coach were for each other. In the world of coaching searches, the term "fit" is thrown around indiscriminately, but it seemed appropriate in this case. From his first public address, Sprinkle spoke with reverence for the tradition and passion that has for so long defined the program he had been entrusted with.

"The Hurd, man," Sprinkle said in April. "I can't wait to walk down that tunnel. You guys are what make this place. You're the separator. They talk about this being one of the best environments, but it's not just one of the best. It is the best. I mean it when I say that you give us the home-court advantage, that's the truth. I can't wait to walk down that tunnel and get this place rocking, and I know the players will too.

"One of the biggest things that attracted me to Utah State is something people don't talk about anymore, the care factor. This community cares. There are not a lot of communities that care about their basketball team like Utah State. You turn on games in the Pac-12 right now, and you're seeing 3,000 fans in some of those arenas. That will never happen here. You're a loyal fan base that cares, and one thing I can tell you is that my care factor is off the charts. Sometimes I have to remind referees about that, and I know my mom does too. It's because I care. It's different here, and I appreciate that."

Eight months and 30 days after Utah State announced Sprinkle's stewardship, marking the conclusion of a search to replace Ryan Odom that Bovee led in his role as interim athletic director, the two men whisked away down that short corridor into the recesses of the Spectrum, leaving behind them a throng of exultant fans who had only moments prior flooded onto the court. It's hard to imagine that either of them expected to be there so soon – or that any of the 10,270 fans in attendance did.

Sprinkle needed all of 15 games to notch the 19th victory over an AP top 25 opponent in Utah State history, capping a 14-1 start matched by only three other teams to don the Aggie Blue and Fighting White in 119 seasons with Saturday's 77-72 victory over then-No. 13 Colorado State

On Monday afternoon, his Aggies broke into those top 25 rankings for the first time since Dec. 2, 2019. They haven't been ranked this far into the regular season (excluding the final poll, which is released after the regular season) since the 2010-11 campaign. That team went 30-4, and only two other Utah State squads (1959-60; 1970-71) have claimed a top 25 spot in the month of January. All three can safely be regarded among the best to come through Logan.

Obviously, this one isn't there yet. The Mountain West is as strong as ever, and looks to be well on its way to sending five teams to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in league history. Sprinkle and his staff have warned their players for months about the gauntlet that awaits them in conference play, and that still holds – Utah State has two games still to play against San Diego State (now No. 19), a return trip to Colorado State (now No. 17), a home bout with Nevada (receiving votes) and plenty of other tests against the likes of Boise State, New Mexico and UNLV in its remaining 16 MWC games.

But on Saturday night, playing in front of the first at-capacity crowd in the Spectrum since the last time Utah State toppled a top 15 opponent (March 2, 2019, against Nevada), the Aggies deserved their moment to celebrate – at least until midnight. That's when the rent is due.

"Our group knows that we enjoy it until midnight, and then once again, the rent is due tomorrow," Sprinkle said. "We have to get better tomorrow, and when Monday comes, we have to get better and pay the rent on Monday. Those days when you're paying rent add up. That's when you have wins like we did tonight. These guys have continued to pay that rent, and we can't stop. We can't be satisfied with that. This league is too good, and I'm confident our guys will come ready to learn tomorrow."

Utah State's victory over Colorado State was, perhaps even more than any of the 12 that preceded it on what's now a 13-game winning streak, an ideal embodiment of everything this program has built itself around since Bovee welcomed Sprinkle to the podium for the first time. It was not always pretty – which is a dizzying glimpse into how much better this group could still be this season – but that was never for a lack of effort or intensity. When shots weren't falling, Utah State kept itself afloat with hard-nosed defense and rebounding. Once the rim opened up, the Aggies soared.

That didn't come until a little later, though. The first half was largely a war of attrition, and one which required an immense effort from the Aggies to enter the break trailing by only four points, 32-28. Colorado State's high-flying offense was not fully in gear by that point, hitting only 40 percent of its shots, but that still dwarfed Utah State's paltry 28.1 percent start and cast the Rams into a comfortable 10-point lead with 10 minutes left in the half following a 9-0 run spurred by a Joe Palmer triple and three layups (two from Patrick Cartier, one from Tavionte Jackson. Sprinkle called for a timeout after the latter set the 10-point margin, needing to break Utah State out of a 6:30-long dry spell from the field.

It was the hometown hero, redshirt freshman Mason Falslev, who snapped the drought, taking the inbound and racing down the floor past Jackson into the paint before slithering under Joel Scott's outstretched left arm to finish a tough scooping layup off the glass. Another youngster, sophomore Javon Jackson, rotated over and disrupted an otherwise wide-open Jalen Lake attempt on Colorado State's next trip down the floor, and Darius Brown II rattled in a tough mid-range jumper not long after.

The lead dwindled to four points with two free throws from Falslev (who, it bears mentioning, has hit 9 of 12 free throws in his last three games after starting the year just 10 for 22), but Colorado State was ready this time with an answer. It pulled back ahead by eight, traded baskets for a few minutes, and then staked out a nine-point edge with 2:38 to play on an Isaiah Stevens triple. Even in a losing effort, the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year put his quality on full display with 21 points and eight assists on 8-of-16 shooting.

"They're a really good team," junior forward Great Osobor said. "They aren't ranked 13th in the country for no reason. Isaiah Stevens was the preseason player of the year for a reason. You can see it. He makes tough shots. Coach Sprinkle said, 'We won't beat ourselves, if you beat us, you have to beat us.'

"I feel like we did a good job of making them make tough shots, not beating ourselves, and trying to make everything difficult for them. They have really good players – Patrick Cartier, Joel Scott, Isaiah Stevens – but if you stick together as a team and help each other out so it doesn't just become a one-on-one battle, you're in a good situation."

Stevens added one more tricky jumper to his total right before the buzzer sounded on the opening frame, but Utah State did well over the period's waning minutes to mitigate it. Jackson, Ian Martinez, Osobor and Josh Uduje all pitched in points down the stretch to pull the Aggies within two before Stevens' half-ending rebuttal from the corner just inside the arc.

"I'm super proud of our guys, and the way they handled Colorado State's runs," Sprinkle said. "I thought we played terribly in the first half, and to still be down by four was a credit to our guys. I thought they made some key plays to keep it close.

"I told them, 'Listen, you're down four to the No. 13 team in the country and you're shooting 28 percent and 1 for 10 from three.' We know we're better than that. I felt like they got some 50/50 plays, they had eight second-chance points and a couple of long rebounds where they made a great effort and tipped it out and then hit threes. Those can be backbreakers against teams like that."

Recognizing that its path to victory against an excellent opponent wasn't obscured despite its shooting woes, Utah State returned to the floor with a sense of stoic confidence. The Aggies, almost entirely rebuilt in the weeks following Sprinkle's arrival, weren't supposed to be here. They were picked ninth in the Mountain West, and though they take great exception to that now, it wasn't exactly an outlandish snub at the time. Essentially all historical metrics and conventional college basketball wisdom say this team has no business being as good as it is.

And yet, there the Aggies were, 20 minutes from a victory over one of the 15 best teams in America. That's the kind of thing that galvanizes a team – especially one that has already faced big moments head-on and emerged from them stronger and more united. Utah State didn't take to the second half as plucky underdogs happy to be involved. The Aggies had drawn blood during a first half that fell well below their standards, and they wanted more.

"Coach told us before the game to just be ourselves, that's enough. It seemed like it was enough," Uduje said with a chuckle.

The Aggies cut the four-point CSU lead in half just 12 seconds into the second stanza, running a nifty offensive set that delivered the ball to Isaac Johnson on the perimeter and isolated Osobor in the post, setting the 7-0 center up for an entry pass that Osobor paid off with an uncontested dunk. Nique Clifford drilled a jumper from just behind the free-throw line, but Falslev got the Colorado transfer right back with a baseline drive, spinning past the 6-6, 200-pound winger for a smooth layup.

"I have to remind myself all the time (that Mason is a freshman)," Sprinkle said. "But I tell him, it's my job to get him out of his comfort zone. You can see how good he'll be. He's just so aggressive and fast. He's doing a really good job of playing off of two feet, and it's been a fight to get him to do that because he's so fast and just jumps off one foot. But now he's playing under control and playing fast, which is hard for anybody to guard."

It was Martinez's turn next, matching the ensuing Clifford three-pointer with one of his own – defended, again, by the talented Colorado transfer. Though Utah State stalled on its next two possessions, falling behind by four on a Scott layup, the Aggies locked down on Colorado State's next two trips down the floor and dialed up a gorgeous inbound play for a Johnson corner three, his first bucket of the evening.

"(Isaac) has (been more aggressive)," Sprinkle said. "I thought he got going on the out-of-bounds play where we hit him on the backside for a three. Coach Haslam told me to call that, it was a great play call, and that got Fish going. All he needs is to see one go through the rim."

Utah State claimed its first lead since the 16:47 mark of the first half with an Osobor second-chance layup, 42-41, and the Spectrum erupted. That advantage would not hold for long, as Colorado State made good on its next three trips down the floor with another Clifford three and two Cartier layups, but the dam could only hold for so long. The Aggies were hitting shots, and that sold-out crowd had come alive. A visiting team, no matter their quality, has to be nearly perfect when met with those circumstances.

It was Uduje who delivered the next lead change, corraling a bounce pass from Falslev (who slipped as he drove and barely managed to get the ball out in time), sizing up Palmer, and nailing a corner three only a few inches from the Aggie bench.

"We just played with confidence," Osobor said. "I trust my teammates, and eventually (Isaac) hit two big shots, Josh hit a three, and once we start making threes, teams have to respect it. That gives me a little breathing room, and at that point it's just picking your poison."

Exiting the under-8 media timeout with Jackson at the line, Utah State launched into a stretch of play that would later prove decisive. The sophomore guard, who gave Utah State nearly 13 excellent minutes off the bench, knotted the score at 57 with a pair of makes from the stripe and sparked a 10-0 Aggie run, carried out as much by the Utah State defense as it was by the shots contained within it. Colorado State went 0 of 4 from the field over the ensuing 3:43 of action, stifled for essentially the first time all season by an Aggie defense that refused to let the Rams up for air. With each stop, the cacophony grew louder – just as Utah State knew it would.

"Me and Josh always joke about how there are things certain in life: Death, taxes and the Hurd," Osobor said. "They were big-time for us tonight. They were amazing. I just want to give them a shoutout, give a shoutout to all the people who came and supported us. Keep coming, enjoy the show."

"I knew we just had to get it to the last five minutes," Sprinkle added. "We had to keep pushing and pushing, get to the last five minutes, and then just let the crowd take over."

With Colorado State finally reeling, Utah State threw the haymakers it had been saving for the game's biggest moments. Osobor made very clear the difference between a junior and a freshman to give Utah State a 59-57 edge, delivering one quick blow to Rashaan Mbemba, taking two hard steps into the paint, and leaving the 6-7, 250-pounder grasping at air as he spun back to his oh-so-strong left hand for a kiss off the glass. Johnson stacked three points onto the burgeoning lead with an extremely ill-advised shot over Scott that probably would have sent him to the bench had he not sent it straight into the bottom of the net.

He kept the momentum rolling on the other end when he nabbed a Lake pass, and Uduje shook the building when he followed an empty dunk attempt from Johnson with a ferocious put-back layup through contact from Clifford. Utah State's lead grew to eight points, 65-57, as Uduje made good on his shot from the stripe out of the under-4 break, and Colorado State never drew closer than the game's final margin.

Whenever it threatened a comeback effort, Utah State wasn't far behind to swat it aside. Clifford and Cartier cut the lead to five with a dunk and a free throw, but Falslev ran the floor and beat Colorado State's press with a layup when Cartier's second shot glanced off the back iron. Clifford brought CSU within six on a fast break layup, and Uduje promptly ended his night – blowing past Scott on the perimeter and all but ending the game on a right-handed floater that made two trips around the rim before deciding it was probably best not to upset the crowd and falling through.

"It was huge, because in this building, those plays count for more than three points," Sprinkle said. "When they get the crowd going, people can say what they want, that's worth more than a three-pointer. I thought (Josh) was terrific tonight. He was aggressive, even on some of the plays where he missed he was aggressive doing it. We need him to continue doing that. I thought Josh was huge."

With four free throws from Brown, split by another press-breaking Falslev layup, the Aggies ushered their guests to the exit, making room on the floor for those who had so diligently supported them throughout the evening – many of whom cut short the final days of their Christmas break or traversed a fledgling snow flurry to do so.

"Thanks to Aggie Nation for coming out," Sprinkle said. "It carried us, especially in the second half. When we finally took the lead, I couldn't hear, and I know you guys couldn't hear either, but that's Spectrum Magic at its best.

"I'm happy for the university and for those fans, the kids who came back a day early from Christmas break. They're the ones who deserve it. Aggie Nation always shows up, and they deserve stuff like this. I'm really happy for them, that our players could do that for them, and I'm obviously happy for the players and staff, too."

For Utah State, there's no sense in resisting the allure of extrapolation and projection. The Aggies were spectacular down the stretch, as they needed to be, but this was not a matter of everything breaking right in an upset bid. They erased a 10-point deficit, surged into a late lead, and beat a top-15 team while showing the unmistakable signs of a squad that still has so much room to grow.

"I think (it is a litmus test)," Sprinkle said. "I'm glad our guys had this success, because we've been telling them, we're a good team. When we do the right things and play the right way, we have a chance to beat anybody. If we don't do that, we aren't a very good team, and you can see it. There are spells where we aren't a great team.

"We have a pretty mature group, even though they're new together and some are pretty young. They come back to work every day. They know they'll get the truth from us. We'll show some things we have to clean up, but we showed we can beat a top 15 team in the country."

The rent is due at midnight. If these Aggies keep paying it in full? Watch out.