Cover Story: Aggies Stand Undeterred And Undisputed Atop The Mountain West
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Cover Story: Aggies Stand Undeterred And Undisputed Atop The Mountain West

Making this one free, for obvious reasons. On Utah State, champions of the Mountain West. Cover Story:
Cover Story: Aggies Stand Undeterred And Undisputed Atop The Mountain West

LOGAN – Danny Sprinkle's message to his team has been the same for months. He said it before they knocked off then-No. 13 Colorado State in January, before they unleashed 40 minutes of fury against Boise State, before they snatched control of their destiny in the Mountain West with a win over San Diego State, and presumably, before Saturday night's regular-season finale against New Mexico.

No matter how large the moment or how long the odds, these Aggies just needed to be themselves. That was enough to deliver them a trophy at the Cayman Islands Classic, to lift them to one of the strongest starts in school history, and to carry them through a Mountain West season packed with more quality than the league has ever claimed before.

This Utah State team is about as far from conventional as it gets – Sprinkle refers to them lovingly as a group of misfits – but that never seemed to bother them. They wore their unlikely circumstances as a badge of honor, coming together as a brand new team with a shared goal to prove that they could do what couldn't be done.

"Sometimes it's hard, the media gets in your head, Twitter and all those types of things, you start seeing stuff like, 'Oh, they haven't played anybody in the non-conference, we'll see how they do in conference play,' and all of those shenanigans," senior point guard Darius Brown II said. "I'm glad we got to prove everybody wrong, because that ninth-place stuff – the whole team was mad about that, and we took it personally."

That was simply an entry point, though; a basketball icebreaker, providing some much-needed common ground for a roster filled with players who had very little of it when they first arrived in Logan. The Aggies have always had a chip on their shoulder, but they aren't driven by spite or indignation, because they had something much better.

"What these guys have done and how they've come together, caring for each other and loving each other, that's real," Sprinkle said. "You can see it. You don't do what they did if they don't truly care about each other."

Against New Mexico, with an outright Mountain West title on the line, they were nothing more than themselves. They fought as hard as they could for 40 minutes, overcoming whatever adversity the world threw at them (and that they provided themselves, in some instances), and then they found a way to win, never for a second doubting that they would. When Brown pushed an entry pass to Great Osobor with eight seconds to play and the game knotted at 84 and saw the Lobos converge on his junior center, he knew the ball would come back out, and he knew exactly where he would put it.

"It was kind of a weird situation, given that there was like three or four seconds left between the shot and the game clocks," Brown said. "Obviously you want to take the last shot, you want to take as much time as possible, but you want to make sure you take a good shot. I slipped out of the screen – I could either set it or slip it, it was a read and I thought their communication wasn't really good on switches. So, I slipped it, I got the ball, I looked into Great and they all just sunk in.

"My coaches always get mad at me for not moving off the ball, so I just wanted to find the right area for Great to find me. Great made a great pass out and then it was just the shot from there. It felt good, I was ready to shoot it. When the shot clock is going down, I wouldn't say those are the easiest (decisions), but you're comfortable because you know there's nothing to do but shoot it. As soon as I touched it, I was like, 'Hey, this is going in.' "

The 10,270 fans in the Spectrum who have watched this team grow from a ragtag bunch into the first outright Mountain West champions in program history knew where it was going, too. So did his teammates, though they dutifully collapsed into the paint to fight for a rebound anyway, lest they never hear the end of it from Sprinkle.

There is no world in which Brown, Utah State's late-game hero all season long, playing the final home game of his illustrious collegiate career with a conference title hanging in the balance, misses that shot. A spotlight from the heavens might as well have blasted through the old paneled ceiling of college basketball's finest cathedral and shone on him as he rose above Jaelen House's outstretched right arm and let fly a three-pointer that will live forever in Utah State history. No other ending could suit this team.

"I don't have too many words," Sprinkle said. "This team... I don't know how to describe them. I really don't. This will never be done in Division I basketball again, where you don't return a point or assist and you win a Mountain West championship. Not at this level, not at the Power Six level.

"It was just meant to be that we would finish it the way we did here. Not winning it on the road. The fans deserved this to be done in the Spectrum... It was the perfect ending to the regular season. It's just a tremendous testament to their belief and faith in each other."

In all honesty, that extends to the entire game. Utah State would have loved to claim a comfortable win, but that isn't what this team is about. It had to be a fight.

New Mexico was more than up for the occasion. Battling for their NCAA tournament life, with hopes for a bid still alive but badly in need of help after the loss, the Lobos went blow for blow with the Aggies all night – in a bout that neither team led by more than six points, and that was within one possession on the scoreboard for nearly 75 percent of the allotted 40 minutes (28:52) with 16 ties and 13 lead changes. They threw the first punch, too, working the ball inside to JT Toppin for a left-handed hook shot and picking up a free possession from House's active hands on the ensuing inbound, which ended with another Toppin bucket at the rim.

Utah State didn't take long to hit back, pulling back within a point of the lead and landing its first big momentum play of the game on a brilliant fast break dunk from Ian Martinez over Jermarl Baker, who tried his best to stay out of Martinez's way but was still hit with his second foul as the senior guard soared past him for a one-handed jam that ignited a home crowd patiently waiting to erupt for the first time.

As with seemingly every big play Utah State generated, New Mexico wasn't far behind with a quick answer, immediately tying the game back up with a Nelly Junior Joseph second-chance layup.

And so the game went, call and response. Osobor spun past Joseph and scooped a layup off the glass and in through contact (though he couldn't convert the free throw); Toppin was right back on the board just over 10 seconds into New Mexico's next possession. Brown beat House in a footrace to the basket and finished his drive with a kiss off the glass; Joseph hit another layup. Osobor knocked down a rare fadeaway jumper from outside the paint; Toppin remained unstoppable.

"It's hard because they're so big and athletic," Sprinkle said. "Toppin is one of the best freshmen in the country, and there's a reason he's probably on draft boards. Nelly Joseph is so big and physical, and they have great touch. It didn't seem like they missed anything from six feet and in tonight, they even made some of their tough jump hooks."

By the time the game's first break came around, shortly after Mason Falslev pushed the Aggies ahead by two with a tough shot in the lane, the two sides had already combined for 30 points and spent a great deal of energy doing it. That frenetic opening pace dulled a bit, but New Mexico always wants a track meet, and Utah State was happy to oblige and lean on its transition offense.

That's not a game many teams are comfortable playing with New Mexico, but the Aggies are plenty convinced of their conditioning, and they've touted one of the best fast-break scoring units in America all season. Their bet paid off all night, to the tune of 34 points on 19 possessions – a new season-high for transition scoring in both volume and efficiency, averaging an astonishing 1.79 points per opportunity.

"That's how you have to score against New Mexico," Sprinkle said. "When they get their defense set on made shots and they have House picking your point guard up full-court, they'll wear you down."

New Mexico was nowhere near as effective on the break, scoring nine points on 10 possessions, but it found other ways to keep up even as the Aggies surged into a six-point lead shortly after the under-16 media timeout. Donovan Dent played a major role in that with an assortment of acrobatic layups, picking up a great deal of help from Mustapha Amzil, who scored 11 consecutive points for the Lobos and pitched in all 13 of his first-half points within eight minutes. Every time Utah State looked primed to pull away, Amzil was there to snatch the game back, cutting a four-point lead down to one, halving a six-point difference and then tying the game at 27 with a trio of triples.

Even through the one-man storm, Utah State eventually reset its edge at six points on an Osobor layup with the clock ticking under seven minutes. But, the Aggies had been nearly perfect offensively for more than 10 minutes, hitting 13 of 20 shots and tallying 34 points from the 18:14 mark until Osobor's layup with 6:57 to play in the frame (more than three points per minute, which is unheard of). They were due for some regression.

It hit hard when it came, and New Mexico didn't hesitate to take advantage, outscoring the Aggies by 11 points, 15-4, over the final 6:57 and casting them into a 44-39 deficit at the break. Utah State puts a great deal of focus on winning the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half (also known as the middle eight), and had quite a bit of work to do coming out of the locker room to make up for its sputtering end to the opening period.

"We talk a lot about the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half," Sprinkle said. "In a lot of games, you can change the momentum in those eight minutes. But, the main eight minutes we talk about, especially at home is winning the game in the last eight minutes. We have to wear teams down and be in the double bonus by that point, and that's when we have to take over with our conditioning."

The Aggies couldn't fully wrest control of that crucial transitional period, but they did enough with their start to the second half to knot the middle eight at 13 apiece, and to reclaim the lead first on a pair of Osobor free throws to cap a 6-0 starting run, and later on a Martinez three-pointer the offense had been hunting for all game. Given that they suffered through nearly seven minutes of offensive impotence against one of the most explosive opponents in college basketball, a 50-48 lead at the first media break of the second half was about as much as the Aggies could hope for.

Returned to its natural state as a back-and-forth affair without an inch of separation to split the two sides, the game blazed through the frame. Josh Uduje gave the Aggies a four-point cushion out of the break, which almost immediately ceded to a one-point New Mexico lead as Dent and House teamed up to rip off five points before Utah State could blink, the former assisting the latter for three, and the latter quickly paying him back with a steal and assist on the ensuing fast break.

"Jaelen House is a great defender," Brown said. "He makes it really hard on you. Offensively, he's super fast, defensively he's super fast, everything. He's just fast. Defensively I had to stay on Dent because he's the big playmaker, more of the catalyst for everything. I think everything goes with Dent over there, and he's hard to stop, man. He's so fast, so strong and when he gets downhill, he's tough to handle. They're both great players and they'll be a dangerous team in the tournament."

Brown stopped the skid before it could really begin with a timely three-pointer, matched within 30 seconds by Baker on the other end. The Lobos were suddenly red hot, and Utah State could only hang on for dear life until the next break, picking up layups from Uduje and Falslev but dropping into another six-point hole as Joseph, Tru Washington, Amzil and Baker carried a 17-7 run into the under-12 timeout. No matter how comfortable the Aggies are with playing at New Mexico's tempo, there's no accounting for it when the Lobos are scoring like that. Utah State doesn't run on made shots in the way that New Mexico does, and when it can't find stops to turn into quick transition buckets, it lands well outside of its comfort zone.

Finally, the Aggies got the stops they were after. Kalifa Sakho sent the game to another quick pause, drawing a foul on Amzil as he collected a defensive rebound, and came out of that timeout as the target man for an alley-oop. It's a risky call, given that Utah State has been shaky on lobs for much of the season, but the reward justifies that risk.

Brown worked his way into the lane off a screen from the junior center, drew the attention of Amzil, and lofted the ball perfectly over his head. Sakho nearly ran himself out of real estate, leaping from just under the basket and catching the pass with his chest facing mid-court, but he showed off his ludicrous athleticism, whipping his frame toward the hoop mid-flight and inflaming a crowd that had been stricken with a creeping sense of anxiety. On the other end, with an Osobor block, a Falslev rebound and dish to Martinez for a twirling and-one layup to bring Utah State back within a point, the Spectrum erupted.

"Neither team could get a stop, and we aren't as explosive as they are offensively, so I was concerned," Sprinkle said. "I was like, 'We just have to somehow get two stops in a row.' "

Utah State didn't manage many more stops down the stretch, but with its offense again firing on all cylinders, it didn't need many more. Brown ousted New Mexico from the lead with two free throws at the 7:42 mark, Martinez provided a bit of separation with another three, surpassing the 20-point mark in the process, and the Aggies set themselves up to simply hold serve over the final seven minutes. With the crowd at their back and the confidence of a season defined by tight wins, they were where they wanted to be.

New Mexico never let the contest slip away, tying the game at 73 (with three quick points from Joseph), 75, 78, 82 and 84 during the final stanza, but it was fighting a battle it could not win. Eventually, the game would break for the Aggies, just as it has all year long. Uduje rattled in a three; Sakho, a 51.9 percent free-throw shooter entering the contest, stepped up to the line and drilled two shots with just under three minutes to play; House finally missed a tough shot in the lane; and Falslev made it a four-point game with a crafty layup.

"It was huge, and his dunk was big too," Sprinkle said. "But, when we shoot in practice, he never misses. Then we get in the games and it's different, I don't know if he's just more amped up or whatnot, but I remember I told Anthony Lorenzo that he would make both. The first one hit every part of the rim and rolled in, but it was just one of those things. You just had a feeling that it was our night, that something would break. He gave us some huge minutes, especially defensively, because we were in some foul trouble and we had to play some different lineups."

Dent and House did everything they could to keep New Mexico afloat, pitching in the final seven points of the evening for the Lobos, but it was never enough to reclaim the lead. Martinez snapped a tie at 82 with 44 seconds to play, bouncing past House on the perimeter, launching himself toward the hoop from just outside of the paint, maneuvering past Dent and beyond Joseph in the air and extending fully to punch through a two-handed slam. House's mid-range jumper at the other end prolonged the inevitable – wearing No. 10 in white and waiting patiently for his chance.

"If Darius Brown isn't the league MVP, I'm never voting again," Sprinkle said. "I'm dead serious. What he's done with this... I told them I say this in an endearing way, but with this group of misfits, it's unbelievable how he's led this group. I don't know if that's four or five game-winning shots he's hit in conference play. When this team needs something, they know they can count on him, and he knows he can count on anybody else to do it too."

The moment could only be his. Utah State's heart and soul; the guiding force behind the most improbable team this program may ever see; the engine powering the vehicle and the frame holding it all together. Brown was never alone for these Aggies, who believe fully that the individual can only be his best through trusting those around him, but as he soaked in the ear-splitting roar of the crowd, mobbed by the teammates he's done so much to elevate, he stood as the singular embodiment of the 2023-24 Utah State Aggies – undeterred and undisputed champions of the Mountain West.