Heading into the meat of the season, the Aggies seem to be playing some of their best basketball yet.
"That first half at Las Vegas was the big turnaround," said Utah State guard Kendall Youngblood about a game played Jan. 9. Because they took No. 1 UNLV out of its game and stayed with the Rebels the first half, it gave them confidence they could play with anyone. They've toyed with their last two opponents.Which is good for Utah State, because following its 91-69 hammering of Fresno State Saturday night in the Spectrum, USU's second win of the week, the Aggies make a potentially difficult road trip starting Thursday at Long Beach State.
Two days later, they're at New Mexico State, now 4-1 in the Big West and right behind Las Vegas. And UNLV comes into the Spectrum right behind the game in New Mexico (Monday, Jan. 28). Fullerton and San Jose complete a five-games-in-nine-days stretch for Utah State, which moved into third place by itself at 4-2 with Saturday's victory.
"Great action, huh?" said a smiling Aggie forward Randy Funk about the schedule.
He had a good reason to grin. He'd gotten back into Coach Kohn Smith's good graces with a strong performance Saturday. Funk guarded Fresno's dangerous Tod Bernard exceptionally well the first half (six points) while putting in 10 points of his own and getting seven rebounds. Funk's numbers for the night were 14 points (7-of-10 shooting) and nine rebounds.
USU outrebounded the worst-rebounding team in the league 45-27, thanks to Funk and Youngblood .
"Randy was aggressive," said Smith.
"Randy was playing tough," said Youngblood, who tied for the scoring lead with Bernard with 21 points. "We knew they were having a tough time guarding him because he's so quick, so we took advantage."
If Funk hadn't scored under early, the Ags would have been in trouble. Neither Jay Goodman nor Youngblood could make their long shots the first half.
"They were playing real soft defensively," said Youngblood, "but Jay and I weren't hitting our shots."
Youngblood had seven points and Goodman two at intermission, but Youngblood doubled that and Goodman added 11 the second half by taking shorter shots, even layups.
"The long shots felt good.; they just weren't falling," said Goodman. "I figured I better try something else, so I tried going to the hole."
Youngblood said Smith alerted him to play harder the second half. "Sometimes I need Coach to get on me," he said. Also, said Youngblood, "We started screening."
The picks helped USU to 25 assists, tying a season high.
Fresno, which has lost five straight, started with an 8-4 lead, but the Ags were soon up 23-12 as their half-court game got sharper.
What started them off was an around-the-horn passing play from Allen Gordon in one corner to Goodman up top to Youngblood wide open under the basket for a a basket-plus-free-throw. Gordon drove, Funk made two underneath, Goodman hit a 10-footer and Jeff Parris scored twice in 24 seconds followed by a Bryon Ruffner basket off an inbounds play and two Parris free throws.
Fresno hung eight to 10 points back until the end of the half, but the Ags hit their first three shots of the second half, all from 15 feet or less, to go up by 16. Fresno trimmed it to 11, then went down by 16 again as Eric Franson scored once and Goodman got two underneath.
Probably the most instrumental thing for Utah State was its determination to take away Fresno's running attack. "Boy, they're explosive," said Smith. "I saw eight of their games on tape, and they ran really well," Smith said. "Part of it was us getting back quickly to take them out of it."
Funk said USU was especially aware that guard Carl Ray Harris liked to dunk on the break, so the Aggies made sure to get back and take that away. Harris had seven points.
The Bulldogs made their only real run of the second half starting with about 15 minutes left, coming within seven, 53-46. Bernard and Wilbert Hooker were suddenly finding range with three-pointers and long twos. Smith called a timeout, told Youngblood how to guard Hooker coming over a pick and gave a tired Funk a rest from guarding Bernard, and things worked themselves out.
Smith substituted less than in some games because those who came in did the job, like when Funk came out and Parris took over on Bernard. "It was one of our better team games. We played a lot of guys, and everyone fit in," Smith said, noting Ruffner and Rich Jardine, too.