After a faint 26-point second half in a loss to Utah Saturday night, Utah State Coach Kohn Smith decided then and there that the next game he would start some freshmen in place of seniors that he thought weren't providing enough drive, defense, rebounding or leadership.

Smith didn't tell his players until 2 o'clock Wednesday, about 51/2 hours before the Aggies were to open the 1991 Big West Conference season at home against Cal-Irvine.It didn't make a lot of difference, if you listen to Bryon Ruffner, who along with fellow freshman Eric Franson started at inside positions for seniors Rich Jardine and Randy Funk. "You're always excited about starting," said Ruffner, "but I knew I was going to play about the same number of minutes whether I started or not."

It did make a difference to seniors like Jeff Parris, who's come on slowly off the bench this season nursing a leg injury. "I know what it did for me," Parris said. "It makes you think about what you have to do. It's an eye opener. Your position is not permanent. You push a little harder.

"Yeah, it helped us," said Parris.

The Aggies jumped to a 9-2 lead, led by as many as 34 and clobbered the Anteaters 111-88 in the Spectrum. Utah State is now 4-6 overall but, more importantly, 1-0 in conference. Irvine is 5-7, 0-1.

Jerry Pimm's UC-Santa Barbara is next up for the Aggies Friday night in the Spectrum at 7:30. The Gauchos beat San Jose State 70-62 Wednesday.

It's the first time since early 1989 against Irvine that USU reached 100 and the most the Aggies have scored since a 114-85 win over San Jose in 1988.

"This is the first real fun game we've had," said Ruffner. "It's always fun to win, but this is the way basketball should be."

"This just gives us confidence," said Parris. "We haven't been able to put two halves together." He noted the Aggies had better shot selection (they were 54 percent from the field, as opposed to a season average of 42 percent). "We gave up a 20-footer to shoot a better shot; the whole team was unselfish," Parris said.

"Our team finally figured out that you don't get points for hitting the rim," joshed Smith.

Ruffner finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, an assist and a block in 22 minutes of play, about 31/2 more minutes than his average game. He shot 5-for-11 and was 5-for-6 on free throws, but his defense against Anteater three-point shooter Jeff Herdman was equally important. Herdman was 4-for-12 from the field, 4-for-10 from three-point range, and he never shot a free throw.

"They said that was why I started," said Ruffner of his defensive assignment.

"Bryon played well," said Parris. "It's contagious when someone plays like that."

"A kid like Ruffner isn't going to let down on defense," said Smith. Smith said he'd studied films of the Aggies' frequent and puzzling lapses in past games and determined that they happened because of defensive letdowns. That didn't happen Wednesday.

Franson scored eight points in 12 minutes and helped keep Anteater star center Ricky Butler tied up. Butler, who had a bad cold, according to Coach Bill Mulligan, had nine points and three rebounds.

Parris added 10 points and five rebounds in 14 minutes, all his scoring coming in a 2 1/2-minute second-half spurt from 17:24 to 14:50.

Leading Utah State was guard Jay Goodman, who shot 50 percent from the field, was 3-for-5 on his three-pointers and totaled 21 points, eight assists and two steals in 24 minutes. That broke a personal slump that saw his shooting off-target and had him scoring 17 or less for six straight games. He scored five of the Aggies' first seven points and made the pass that led to the other two, an Allen Gordon basket.

Guard Kendall Youngblood layed in 18 points, 13 in the first half when USU thundered to a 50-28 lead. Youngblood had a game-high 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of play.

"Utah State did that to us last year, too; they killed us on the transition game," said Mulligan, whose team is on a 10-day road trip. He said the Anteaters always send four players to the offensive board for rebounds; when they get rebounds, it works. They didn't Wednesday. They had 12 offensive rebounds, and the Aggies owned the boards 51-37.