LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — While the Rebels questioned their effort, their competitive spirit Wednesday night, they also admitted they had no answer for Steven Ashworth.
Utah State’s 3-point specialist scored a game-high 27 points and added seven assists in a 91-66 Mountain West triumph over UNLV before an announced crowd of 5,747 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The loss was the worst this season for UNLV (17-12, 6-11). Before Wednesday, the Rebel’s largest margin of defeat was 84-66 (18 points) against Boise State on Jan. 11.
Rebels Justin Webster and Jordan McCabe were apologetic after the loss, saying their effort — or lack thereof — was unacceptable.
“As leaders of this team, we apologize,” Webster said. “That’s not UNLV basketball.” He also called it “one of the worst games I’ve ever been part of.”
The Rebels weren’t very good, shooting 18-for-57 (31.6%), with more than a third of their shots coming from 3-point range, 8-for-23 (34.8%). They didn’t share on offense, with six assists overall, and for long stretches played sloppily.
Of course, whenever they did show some drive, Ashworth was there to crush their confidence.
His best spurt was scoring all eight points — two 3-pointers and a long jumper — in a 2 1/2-minute span early in the second half after the Rebels closed a 44-32 halftime deficit to four points, 49-45.
Jackie Johnson III keyed a 13-5 Rebels’ spurt to start the half, hitting a pair of 3’s and contributing a steal to the burst.
But after a timeout by Utah State, Ashworth struck with the three long shots. His outburst made it 57-45 with 13:24 left, and that was it for UNLV.
“I thought we answered their runs really well and stayed composed,” Ashworth told the Herald Journal newspaper (Logan, Utah). “… We have so many weapons that we can go to.”
A 14-0 first-half scoring burst gave the Aggies (23-7, 12-5) the lead for good, turning a 15-12 deficit into a 26-15 advantage. In that stretch, as in the second-half run, Utah State shared the ball and played with poise. Ashworth had three baskets, including a 3, and an assist in the run.
“We had a really productive off week,” Ashworth said. “This week was huge to allow us to work on some things. Every game matters, every possession matters.”
The reason for the Aggies’ intensity is that they’re knocking on the NCAA Tournament door, close to being a lock for the big dance. It’s all in the mathematical analysis referred to as “bracketology, and victories could secure a berth regardless of what happens in the Mountain West tournament that starts March 8 at the Thomas & Mack.
McCabe praised the Aggies for that poise and their overall determination with getting an NCAA Tourney bid.
“On one side of the ball you had a team fighting for an NCAA Tournament appearance,” he said, “… so that’s what you felt, that urgency.
“One team felt like they needed to win and one team felt that they’d like to.”
Ashworth, one of the top-ranked 3-point shooters in the NCAA this season, finished 10-for-17 shooting, including 5-for-10 from 3-point land. His seven assists were one more than the entire UNLV team.
McCabe said Ashworth’s confidence is always high, but to stop him, or even contain him, you have keep pressure on him. “He’s an elite player,” McCabe said. “With a player like him, his confidence never wavers … he hit a lot of tough shots … it has to start early with guys like that.
“If he makes his first two or three shots, then it’s a long night.”
UNLV coach Kevin Kruger, obviously disappointed with the lopsided loss, echoed the compliment, also calling Ashworth, who averages 16.2 points and shoots 48.7%, including 44.9 from 3-point range, an elite player in the Mountain West.
“That’s what makes it tough, that’s what makes him one of the best players in our league,” Kruger said when asked about stopping a shooter of Ashworth’s caliber. “He hit some tough shots …
“When you have a chance, you just got to make some of those shots tougher.”
Ashworth had significant help. Overall, Utah State made 34 of 55 shots (61.8%), including 10-for-21 on 3s.
Max Shulga added 19 points and Dan Akin chipped in 13.
EJ Harkless led UNLV with 20 points, including 15 in the opening half. Shane Nowell added 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Rebels close with a road game against intrastate rival Nevada-Reno on Saturday. Then it’s off to the conference tournament.
Webster predicted a better performance for the final regular-season game. “On Saturday, we’ll be ready to go,” he said.