Aggies 3-point shooting dries up in soggy Sacramento as USU loses 10th-straight NCAA Tournament game
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Utah State coach Ryan Odom reminded media members and fans countless times this season that it is really, really hard to win college basketball games.
When your program is trying to win one in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 and break a lengthy losing skid in the Big Dance, it is almost impossible — particularly when you shoot 16.7% from 3-point range after beyond-the-arc marksmanship was your bread and butter all year long.
“Twenty-six of their 31 points in the first half were points in the paint. You gotta understand at that point that’s not how they want to score. That’s not how they want the entire game to go.” — Missouri coach Dennis Gates.
Despite their uncharacteristic shooting woes — 4 of 24 from deep — the 10th-seeded Aggies gave the SEC’s No. 7 seed Missouri a good test Thursday at Golden 1 Center, but ultimately succumbed 76-65 to drop their 10th-straight March Madness game, and ninth-straight first-round game.
“We just weren’t hitting the shots we normally make,” was star guard Steven Ashworth’s blunt assessment.
The Aggies (26-9) went 0 for 11 in the first half from deep, and were fortunate to be trailing just 35-31 at the break, Odom said.
“We got it close enough (before halftime) to where it was, ‘OK, our guys at least feel pretty good about it at that point,” he said. “We have been down at half before this season and been able to come back and win games.”
Like last week in the Mountain West tournament semifinals, when they trailed Boise State by eight points at the break and came roaring back to win the game that probably got them into the tournament. But Missouri is no BSU — the Tigers (25-9) were not said to be a strong defensive squad, but rose to the occasion in this matinee affair in California’s capital, which has been beset by rain so much the Sacramento River is overflowing its banks.
Utah State did not rise up when it needed to most.
“Nobody in the country, nobody in the basketball world, expected first of all for us to be here, and secondly for Utah State to go 0 for 11 in the first half or miss the amount of 3s they missed,” said Missouri coach Dennis Gates. “The only people that believed we could do what we did was the guys in our locker room, obviously, and our crowd, our fan base, those that have been by our side from Day 1.”
Gates mentioned several times that Mizzou was a big underdog in his postgame comments, although in reality USU was only a 1.5-point favorite.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” said Gates, who might be the only coach in the history of NCAA Tournament postgame news conferences to ask the media to keep asking questions when the moderator said the Tigers’ time was over. “They said we were losing today.”
Gates, who played at Cal and is in his first year in Columbia, said when he learned Missouri would be playing Utah State, he watched every single one of USU’s Mountain West contests and formulated a game plan to limit the number of 3-pointers the Aggies could get off.
“I think our studying behind the scenes from the staff, our coaches, but also our players played a part in our performance,” he said.
The plan was to give up shots from the elbow, floaters and drives to the paint, but stay with USU’s guards on the perimeter. It worked.
In the first half, Utah State was 13 of 17 on 2-point tries and had outscored Missouri 26-14 in the paint. But that’s not the Aggies’ game, obviously.
Graduate transfer Taylor Funk led USU with 16 points in his final game as an Aggie, but was 2 of 10 from beyond the arc. Ashworth was also 2 of 10 from deep.
“Twenty-six of their 31 points in the first half were points in the paint,” Gates said. “You gotta understand at that point that’s not how they want to score. That’s not how they want the entire game to go.”
Utah State missed its first two 3-pointers of the second half to push the futility streak to 13, then Ashworth finally hit one after a steal and that seemed to get USU going. Utah State took its first lead since early in the game when Dan Akin sandwiched a pair of hammer dunks around a Max Shulga layup with 10:47 left.
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The thousand or so Aggie fans who made the trip were suddenly on their feet as Gates got a quick timeout.
Missouri didn’t flinch.
And the Tigers also found out, again, what Brown — Kobe Brown — can do for them. The 6-foot-8 senior from Alabama scored his team’s next 12 points, part of a 12-4 Tigers run, and when D’Moi Hodge drained a 3-pointer with 5:25 left, the Aggies were reeling toward another postseason loss.
“Coach always says we try not to blink,” said Brown, who finished with 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting. “We don’t blink when things get rough.”
Hodge finished with a game-high 23, while also playing outstanding defense on USU’s high-scoring guards.
“Our approach was to pressure full court. We know what they wanted; they wanted jump shots,” Hodge said. “We tried to force them to the basket to make them make two, make the big man score. We put it out to the shooters. They didn’t want the big men to score, they wanted to shoot. … That helped in the long run.”
As the game started to get away from the Aggies, a reserve on their bench was hit with a technical foul for saying something about a series of no-calls underneath the USU basket as the teams and officials headed back up the court. Missouri’s Hodge missed both free throws, but Brown hit a 3-pointer on that possession and then USU’s Shulga made a bad pass — one of USU’s 15 turnovers — and Hodge’s subsequent 3 was the nail in the coffin.
“Brown was tremendous,” Odom said. “He hit two really difficult 3s. … I mean, he’s a load. Obviously Hodge goes loose there, as well. All of a sudden we were chasing the game pretty quickly. Up two, then all of a sudden we’re chasing.”
So now the Aggies go back to chasing another berth in the Big Dance, knowing that Mountain West teams to date have not fared well in the tournament since 2018. San Diego State’s 63-57 win over Charleston later Thursday snapped an 11-game Mountain West losing skid in the tournament.
Meanwhile, it was Missouri’s first NCAA Tournament win in 13 years, ending a six-game futility streak for the SEC team. The Tigers played Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” in their locker room, but don’t go saying they were celebrating, Gates said.
“Celebration, no such thing,” he noted. “We got to prepare for the next opponent.”
And the Aggies have to go back to Logan wondering where their latest appearance in the NCAA Tournament went wrong.
For the 10th-straight time.