Cover Story: No Shooting, No Problem As Aggies Overcome Santa Clara In Road Win
13 min read

Cover Story: No Shooting, No Problem As Aggies Overcome Santa Clara In Road Win

(FREE) Facing a significant shooting disparity brought on by a brilliant Santa Clara gameplan, Utah State did what this Utah State team does and found a way to win. Cover story:
Cover Story: No Shooting, No Problem As Aggies Overcome Santa Clara In Road Win
Photo via Santa Clara Athletics

SANTA CLARA – Herb Sendek's team was ready for the occasion. Santa Clara, in desperate need of a win after losses in each of its last three DI games (to Ohio State, California and New Mexico) blemished what had been a perfect 6-0 record, saw a prime opportunity against Utah State. The Aggies entered the game at 9-1 and would be far from easy prey, but Santa Clara hadn't lost a regular season game at home in its last eight bouts, and found a matchup it liked.

For that Wednesday night battle, Santa Clara's preparation was nearly flawless. The Broncos leaned into their greatest advantage – America's fifth-tallest roster, led by seven-footers Francisco Caffaro and Christoph Tilly and a rotation with nine players standing 6-5 or larger – and forced Utah State to adjust. Santa Clara doled out only 21:35 of time on the floor (10.8 percent of available minutes) to its two shortest players, Jalen Benjamin and Brenton Knapper, relying on big guards Adama Bal, Tyeree Bryan and Carlos Marshall Jr. to shoulder the backcourt load and bolster a gameplan built around quelling Utah State's interior offense.

Sendek's maneuver was emphatically successful.

Great Osobor had his first bad game as an Aggie, shooting 3 of 15 from the field (3 of 6 from the free-throw line) for just nine points and turning the ball over five times. Mason Falslev, Isaac Johnson and Josh Uduje combined for 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting, with Falslev and Johnson playing only 16:30 and 8:39, respectively – Uduje logged just over 20 minutes, in large part because of his ability on defense and as a rebounder (he had three boards, one steal and a block). Utah State, which has held one of the best two-point shooting offenses in America all season, went 17 of 47 from inside the arc, shot just 37.3 percent on all field goal tries, and was outscored in the paint by nearly 20 points, 44-26.

On the other end, Santa Clara ran ball screens at every possible opportunity, attacking Utah State's bigs with quick guards on switches in some moments and rejecting those screens to disrupt USU's defensive flow in others – which has been just about the only way to get past this Aggie defense all year. Southern Utah did it to great effect, Bradley used it to eke out a 72-66 overtime victory and hand Utah State its only loss of the year, and both Akron and Saint Louis nearly did the same in narrow Aggie wins.

With 18 points from Bal, 16 from Marshall, 15 from 6-10 sharpshooter Johnny O'Neil, and 11 apiece from Bryan and forward Camaron Tongue, Santa Clara shot nearly 60 percent from the field (57.1 percent) – easily the best night any opponent has had from the field against Utah State this season, trailed by Southern Utah at 50.8 percent and nearly 10 percentage points better than the next team on the board (San Diego, 47.6 percent).

The Broncos outshot Utah State by almost 20 percentage points, won the assist battle by three (17 to 14), the bench scoring battle by 10 (29-19) and even took the foul battle by a two-foul margin (19 on Utah State, 17 on Santa Clara). You could not script a worse game state for this USU squad, especially without the steadfast crowd of the Spectrum to lift the Aggies through their struggles.

"If you look at their shooting percentages, I wouldn't have expected a win," head coach Danny Sprinkle said. "They shot over 50 percent, shot well from three and the free-throw line, and they made it really hard on Great. That's where he needs to improve, because teams will guard him like that, and he has to be prepared for it."

And after 40 nightmarish minutes against a talented and extremely well-prepared opponent that had executed brilliantly every part of its plan to spring an upset – leading for more than half of a matchup that saw 14 lead switches and 11 ties – Darius Brown II tracked a desperate attempt to the save the ball from flying out of play like a veteran center fielder, catching it in stride and dribbling out the clock on an 84-82 Utah State win.


"It was a great win by our guys," Sprinkle said. "We didn't play great, but us forcing 19 turnovers while only having nine was the key to the game. Darius and Ian, especially in the second half, making some incredible one-on-one shots was huge for us. We had some guys who struggled, and that'll happen, but I'm proud of our fight and that we figured out a way to win in the last eight minutes on the road. That's what it's all about."

For all of its hard work, both before and during the game, Santa Clara's reward was no different from the one Utah State gave each of its last eight opponents. The Broncos did just about everything right, they picked up huge nights from all of their stars while all but removing Utah State's, and the Aggies beat them anyway, giving Sprinkle sole ownership over the finest start to a coach's tenure in this program's long history – 10-1.

Even if his life depended on it (it doesn't), he wouldn't make any direct reference to that achievement without immediately crediting his players and coaching staff, while also noting the amount of work still to do as Utah State continues its march toward Mountain West play. Once a point guard, always a point guard.

"It's huge for our guys (to get a win) against a really good WCC team on the road," Sprinkle said. "It's our second true road win of the year, and we know it'll only get tougher. We have a lot of teaching points we'll get from this game. But, anytime you go to someone else's house and come out with a win, it's huge. We knew we would get a good team tonight with them coming off a loss to New Mexico. I knew they'd come in hot, and they did."

In many ways, Sprinkle is correct. The players play the games, and without them, there would be no college basketball – let alone a Utah State team to participate in it. They've also been perilously close to several losses that landed instead as wins, influenced by one or two plays and one or two bounces in the right direction.

Southern Utah trailed by only four points with fewer than five minutes to play in Logan; Akron was a fumbled Mikal Dawson steal away from the lead with 29 seconds on the clock; Utah State was inches from turning the ball over to Saint Louis with only seconds remaining, which would have given the Billikens a chance to tie the game; and UC Irvine drew within seven points and only fell out of the game for good after two very tough Ian Martinez layups.

Basketball is, of course, a zero-sum game. How the job gets done is consequential, but the preeminent concern is just that it gets done. The rent is due, and Utah State has paid it in full 10 times in 11 tries. They're the first MWC team to 10 wins, and though Colorado State, Nevada and New Mexico will likely join them soon, they haven't yet.

This league is home to tremendous, established players like Chibuzo Agbo, Trey Anderson, Kenan Blackshear, Kalib Boone, Tyson Degenhart Isaiah Hill, Jaelen House, Jaedon LeDee, Jarod Lucas, Jamal Mashburn Jr., Luis Rodriguez and Isaiah Stevens. It has perennial tournament teams – the best of which played for a national title eight months ago – and established coaches with long track records of success. It even has a self-proclaimed super team, embarrassing as that may sound given that team's current state.

Utah State, with its brand-new team under a brand-new coaching staff, sits above all of that in the conference standings. It's unlikely the Aggies will hold that perch as conference play unfolds, but it was pretty damn unlikely that they'd be there in the first place. This program has seen more than its fair share of great coaches, from E. Lowell Romney, H. Cecil Baker, Ladell Andersen, Dutch Belnap, Rod Tueller, Larry Eustachy, Stew Morrill and Craig Smith to Ryan Odom. All of them inherited more production than Sprinkle, and none of them did in year one what he's done. It took Romney 15 years to start a season 10-1; Morrill and Tueller each needed four; Odom and Smith both did it in two. Andersen, Baker, Belnap and Eustachy never did it.

It may sound like a tangent (and I'd never go off on one of those), but tracing the path Sprinkle and his Aggies have taken to this rarefied air is crucial for explaining Wednesday night's win. Utah State has scratched and clawed its way to the position it now finds itself in. That it beat Santa Clara is a surprise only when viewed through the circumstances of the game. When taken with the breadth of this still-young campaign, it makes perfect sense.

Utah State found a way to win, because that's what this Utah State team does.

Sometimes, it does it through the 6-8, 250-pound force of nature at the center of its attack. Other times, it comes from an immensely talented and diverse collection of guards. Often, a commitment to the fundamentals of defense and rebounding plays a major role. These Aggies have toppled teams big and small, athletic and... trying really hard, fast and slow. They've won close and they've won big, in games both high-scoring and low.

This time, they did it with opportunistic defense, ruthless rebounding, and two veteran guards in Brown and Martinez who categorically refused to lose the game.

"They're both just good basketball players," Sprinkle said. "They're electric with the ball in their hands and they can create their own shots. Now, some of the shots they made tonight were tough, and you don't want to have to rely on those, but Santa Clara was packing the paint and making it really hard for us to get to the rim. Sometimes, it comes down to guys having to make those plays, and thank goodness they did tonight. They're both capable of that, and that's my expectation for them."

Osobor was stymied and oft-frustrated by Santa Clara's defense, which collapsed around him whenever he touched the ball and forced quite a few plays the junior would like to have back. For similar reasons, Falslev and Uduje could never find the flow of the game offensively. Their offensive output starts with attacking the rim and then expands outward, and Santa Clara refused to give either player any clean entry into the evening. Johnson struggled with Santa Clara's dueling seven-footers and earned a quick trip to the bench as he picked up three fouls in less than nine minutes of action. Javon Jackson and Karson Templin have provided plenty of great production this season, but the moment was a little too big for players that young.

That left just four Aggies to pick up the slack: Max Agbonkpolo, Brown, Martinez and the unlikely hero of the evening, Kalifa Sakho.

Agbonkpolo has played in plenty of these games, and revels in them. He didn't have a great night from the field, shooting 4 of 12, but he knocked down two enormous three-pointers in the game's opening half, cutting a pair of six-point Santa Clara leads in half within the first nine minutes of play.

"Max was huge," Sprinkle said. "His threes got us off to a great start, and that's what he's capable of. I keep telling him, 'Listen, you keep shooting whenever you're open.' There will be a game when he hits four or five. We needed both of those tonight, it really fueled us."

More importantly, he delivered a gem defensively, and dominated the Broncos on the glass. Playing nearly 35 minutes, Agbonkpolo secured seven rebounds – second only to Osobor (who still had 10, despite his off night) – with five on the offensive end, helping to push the Aggies toward a 39-34 overall advantage on the boards and an absurd 17-4 margin on the offensive end. All five of his tallies on the offensive glass came in the second half.

"In the first half, we weren't rebounding that well," Agbonkpolo said. "Coach made sure we did that in the second half, offensively and defensively, so we came out and made that a key. We had a lot of key offensive rebounds that helped us win the game, that was big-time for us. As long as we keep defending and rebounding, a lot of games will go our way."

He grabbed two on Utah State's second possession of the frame, turning the latter into a two-point lead, 47-45. With 3:38 to play, he corraled a missed Uduje three-pointer, for which Uduje immediately paid him back, grabbing Agbonkpolo's ensuing miss and laying it in to push the Aggies in front, 72-70. They would not surrender that lead across the 3:29 that followed.

"It felt like old times, back when I was with USC and even last year in the Mountain West," Agbonkpolo said. "I've played in a lot of close games, two good teams going at it and going down to the wire. It felt good to me. I like these games. That's not to say that I like it when they're close, but I like competitive, good DI games, and that was this tonight. I think by far this was the best team we've played so far this season, and for us to come into Santa Clara was big for our team, especially with a lot of young guys and a lot of new guys. This is a good game to get under our belts."

Though Sakho played significantly fewer minutes, checking in at 11:56, his role was similar. He has almost no experience in games like this one, but Utah State needed a center it could trust with Johnson on the bench and Osobor struggling, and Sakho rose to the occasion.

The stat sheet has done him no favors, and credits him with just four points, four fouls and no other marks, but that plus/minus category rarely lies, and Sakho's plus-10 finish led the team. Utah State was credited with five offensive "team" rebounds – which is any rebound that can't be clearly assessed to one player. Upon review, the first came on a Johnson shot blocked out of bounds; the second was an Uduje save off a Santa Clara player.

Sakho deflected the third, a Martinez miss from three, off Tongue and scored on a layup later in the possession. He got Tongue again with 14:26 left in the second half, beating him to the ball in the air and forcing the Broncos forward to knock it out of bounds.

Saving the best for last, the fifth uncredited offensive rebound was again the work of Sakho, who boxed out the 7-1 Caffaro as Uduje fired a jumper in the lane and leaped well above O'Neil when the shot careened to the side, spiking it off the Santa Clara forward and out of bounds. Without his effort, it would have been an easy rebound and potentially a transition opportunity for the Broncos, who already led by four. Instead, the ball stayed with the Aggies, Brown drilled a mid-range jumper from the corner with the shot clock winding down, and Martinez tied the game in transition off a Brown steal only moments later.

"I thought Kalifa was great in ball screen defense, especially down the stretch when we needed him to be there at the point of the screens and to get those big rebounds," Sprinkle said.

And of course, there are those two guards. Their numbers are eye-popping – Martinez had 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting, knocking down four threes and eight free throws while adding four rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block; Brown finished with 23 points (8 of 19), seven assists, four steals and four rebounds – and somehow still don't fully reflect their performances.

"They showed out," Agbonkpolo said. "I've been telling DB all year that he has to start shooting more. He loves passing the ball, and I love him for that, but I've been telling him he has to shoot the ball for us to win big games like this, and he did that today. So did Ian. They saved us with those big, clutch shots."

That can be expressed only with the context of their biggest moments. In the first half, with Santa Clara ahead by eight points (31-23) and the clock ticking under four minutes, Martinez scored 12 points in less than two minutes, bringing the Aggies back within a point on an alley-oop pass from Brown. Brown tied the game at 38 with a three on Utah State's next possession, and drilled another with 53 seconds to play after stealing the ball from Marshall, sending the game to the half at a 43-43 stalemate.

Across the last 5:01, Brown and Martinez took turns punching Santa Clara in the throat. They started with that aforementioned sequence of Brown's jumper off the inbound, his steal on a bad pass from Bal, and Martinez's finish at the other end. Brown struck next with 2:56 on the clock, taking an Osobor ball screen and rising to drill an elbow jumper to push the Aggies ahead by three, 74-71.

Martinez took the next turn, crashing into the lane after an Osobor miss on Utah State's next possession, drawing a foul on O'Neil as he fought for the offensive rebound, and hitting the front end of his free throws for a 75-73 lead. Knapper turned the ball over on the other end, Utah State called a timeout, and Martinez shook free of Marshall, pushing the lead to eight with a three-pointer.

Bal hit a tough shot in the lane, Brown hit a tougher one from the elbow. Bryan knocked down a triple, Martinez made two free throws. After a Bal dunk, Martinez was again perfect at the stripe, giving Utah State an 84-80 edge with 13 seconds left. Marshall hit a very long two with just under four seconds to play, and Bal deflected the ensuing inbound, but his save would have fallen to Martinez if Brown wasn't there to secure it.

In the second half alone, those two combined for 25 of Utah State's 41 points. For the game, they had seven of USU's 10 steals, and were directly responsible for quite a few more of Santa Clara's 19 turnovers. They did it with their shots in their clutch, their defense throughout the game, and everything else. When the Aggies needed them, they found a way.

"It was just playing hard. In the first half, I thought we were very soft," Sprinkle said. "We were the ones reacting to everything they were doing. I told them at halftime, it's like in boxing, we're getting punched and then we're doing something. You have to be the one throwing the first punch, you have to get out and attack, you have to be aggressive. I told them I'll take some fouls, I don't care, but we have to ratchet up the defense and the energy. In the second half, they responded.

"It shows (them), that's why we defend in the summer. A lot of teams just do offense in the summer, but I knew with this team and with my teams at Montana State that we had to put in our defensive principles in the summer, because I know that's what wins games on the road. You have to get stops at critical times, you have to be grimy and physical. On nights like this, where you aren't shooting it (well), that's where your defense has to win you the game."