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Danny Sprinkle equals best 10-game start for a USU hoops coach as Aggies move to 9-1

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LOGAN – Located, appropriately enough, 300 miles of northwest of Cache Valley, Northwest Nazarene never really found their bearings Saturday night at the Spectrum.

The Division II Nighthawks from Nampa, Idaho, suffered an 84-53 loss at the hands of the Aggies, who extended their winning streak to eight games with the victory. 

“I’m proud of our guys,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “I tell them that any time they have a chance to step on the court the goal is to win, and that’s what they did and I thought our starters were great. They had tremendous energy and got us off to a tremendous start.”

Utah State (9-1) opened the game with a 19-2 burst before surrendering a 12-2 run to the Nighthawks (4-5) when Sprinkle started going to the bench.

But the Aggies closed out the first half strong to take a 46-29 lead into intermission, and then clamped down defensively on Northwest Nazarene to pull away by as many as 31 points despite a less-than-stellar offensive performance in the second half. 

“I want to give credit to Northwest Nazarene; this game was way, way closer than the score,” Sprinkle said. “… They’ve got a good team and have some guys that could be Division I players. They’re big and they’re physical, and I thought they made it tough at the rim.”

The Aggies, who shot 51.7% for the game despite shooting only 38.7% in the second half, ended up with five players in double figures, including four of five starters.

The fifth starter, point guard Darius Brown II, totaled just five points, but finished with 11 assists, two turnovers and six steals.

“I’ve also been very prideful about taking care of the ball,” said Brown, who came into the game leading the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7.67-to-1 and was second overall in assists per game. 

“That’s the No. 1 job of the point guard is to take care of the ball, and I get held accountable to that by the coaches, and I also hold myself accountable. It’s a big deal to me to never make sure that I take care of the ball and never get too high or too low. It’s just about playing solid and making the right plays.”

Junior forward Great Osobor led the Aggies with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while fellow starters Mason Falslev (14 points), Issac Johnson (13 points) and Ian Martinez (11 points) also contributed offensively.

Junior guard Josh Uduje led the bench with 10 points. 

Sprinkle certainly could have done without 15 turnovers, USU’s second-highest total of the season, but the Aggies outrebounded Northwest Nazarene 35-26, went 14-for-15 from the free-throw line — their best performance of the year — and equalized their season-high with 13 steals.

“Danny is doing a good job,” NNU head coach Jon Hawkins said of Sprinkle. “They are really physical. We saw that in film, how physical they are defensively, and we couldn’t match how physical they were. They pushed us away from our action, pushed us off of our line any time that we drove. 

“Loud, big lights and missed shots dictated what we could do defensively, and they went on multiple big runs and that hurt.”

The Nighthawks shot 43.5% for the game, including just 29.2% in the second half, and committed 22 turnovers.

Freshman guard Eason Reagan (12 points), junior Aaron Murphy (11 points) and senior forward Christian Rose (10 points) all scored in double figures for Northwest Nazarene, who managed to make USU fans briefly feel a little bit nervous midway through the first half after failing to score a field goal for the first four minutes of the game. 

But after Sprinkle reinserted Falslev, the tide quickly went back USU’s way as the Cache Valley native threw down three dunks.

After the Nighthawks trimmed the Aggies’ lead down to seven points, Martinez buried a 3-pointer, and moments later Falslev came up with a steal and threw it down at the other end for a 30-18 lead. 

Moments later, he drove the baseline for an arguably even more impressive slam as it came in heavy traffic. But just as the Spectrum crowd was really getting worked up, Osobor snagged a steal in the paint and fired it ahead to Martinez, who lobbed it up perfectly for Falslev as he came flying down the lane. 

“Mason’s just a big ball of energy, man,” Sprinkle said of his 6-foot-3 guard’s slam dunk outburst. “He was terrific tonight. He was flying around the whole game, and we needed it.”

Utah State’s victory helped Sprinkle equal the best-ever 10-game start for a first-year head coach at USU. Legendary coach Ladell Andersen also started 9-1 during the 1961-62 season.

Of course, the Aggies’ start should come with an asterisk considering that when Sprinkle was hired to replace Ryan Odom after Odom left for VCU, he ended up retaining zero points from the 2022-23 season, essentially bringing in an entirely new team other than walk-on guard Landon Brenchley, and Falslev and Johnson, who both redshirted last year. 

When asked if he would taken nine wins in his first 10 games at the Aggie helm coming in, the former Montana State head coach didn’t hesitate: “Oh yeah. Every day,” he said. 

“But that’s a credit to my assistant coaches. They do a tremendous job scouting and coaching these guys in practice, and above anything, it’s because of our players.

They’re the ones that practiced hard in the summer and go through the grind and they’re the one making shots and getting assists and turning over and making free throws. The players have been tremendous. I’ve never thought that their hearts weren’t in the right place and they pull for each other. It’s a really unselfish group.”

The Aggies, whose only blemish thus far came on the road in overtime at Bradley, were 31st in the NET rankings as of Dec. 6. Utah State was also fourth in the country in field goal percentage at .534 and eighth in assists per game at 18.9.

That said, the Aggies are heading into their toughest week so far this season as they take on the West Coast Conference portion of their preseason schedule.

Utah State travels to Santa Clara on Wednesday, then returns to the Beehive take on San Francisco Saturday at the Delta Center.

The Broncos (7-3) lost to New Mexico, 93-76, in a neutral court game on Saturday in the Jack Jones Classic in Las Vegas, but Santa Clara has already beaten Stanford and Oregon this season.

The Dons went 20-14 in 2022-23, losing to Gonzaga in the championship game of the WCC tournament. So far this season, San Francisco (6-3) has beaten DePaul, Minnesota and Vanderbilt and lost at Boise State, 63-58, heading into home games against New Orleans and Seattle this week.

“We need to clean some things up with Santa Clara and San Francisco coming up because those are probably the best two teams we’ve played so far,” Sprinkle said.

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