With the Mountain West regular season title on the line, plus a potential berth in the NCAA tournament at stake, Utah State turned to their star leader, Sam Merrill.
In one of the biggest games in recent Utah State basketball history, the Aggies defeated the No. 12-ranked Nevada Wolf Pack 81-76 on Saturday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Merrill finished with 29 points on 8-19 shooting, including 4-7 from behind the arc, plus five rebounds. USU is now tied for first place in the MW standings.
“What a fantastic win for the Aggies,” head coach Craig Smith said. “Nevada is really good and it can’t be understated… I can’t put it into words how huge of a win this was for our program against a tremendous team in Nevada.”
The game turned physical quickly, as neither team found much of a rhythm in the first 10 minutes of the game. The teams traded blows and the lead several times, before a quick 8-0 run from Utah State featuring a dunk from freshman Neemias Queta and two 3-pointers from Merrill put the Aggies in front 19-12. USU never relinquished the lead from that point on.
“It was a very physical game and that’s how we want to play at home,” Merrill said. “We want to, at times, try to rough things up… But there’s physical toughness and there’s mental toughness, and I think as a team, we have a lot of mental toughness.”
The Wolf Pack fought back, trimming USU’s lead to as few as one point on the scoring prowess of Tre’Shawn Thurman and Caleb Martin. The Aggies forged an answer to every Nevada run, however, holding onto the lead until the first half buzzer rang with Utah State head 37-33.
“Very physical game,” junior Diogo Brito said. “Eventually, I think we fed off our crowd, because they were huge tonight… I think the fact that we were able to stay in the game and keep the lead was a really good sign of our toughness.”
The Aggies came roaring out of the locker rooms, using a 9-3 run to open up the second frame and push the lead into double-digits. Utah State staved off Nevada for much of the second half before a the Wolf Pack threatened to steal the game via a 10-1 run which trimmed the Aggies’ lead to two points with only three minutes to play.
“Our guys kept responding and just stayed really poised,” coach Smith said. “There were some times, like any heavyweight fight like this certainly was, that things weren’t going our way and our guys just stayed poised throughout the night… In a heavyweight fight, it’s not always about how many punches you can throw but how many punches you can take and keep getting up.”
In crunch time, Utah State clamped down on Nevada, holding the Wolf Pack to 2-6 shooting over the final three minutes. Offensively, the Aggies were able to ice the game at the line, going 10-14 from the charity striped in the same time frame. A full student section emptied onto the court as Merrill ran out the final seconds of the victory and embraced his teammates near mid-court.
“To get to where we are,” Merrill said, “after the last couple years which were really tough, and to see the Spectrum full like that again for the first time in a while… just to have a little moment of gratitude for Coach Smith and Mr. (athletic director John) Hartwell and for everyone that’s helped us get almost back to where we want to be. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got one more, but it’s a pretty humbling moment.”
The celebration with the students continued, with the ultimately crowd hoisting Coach Smith onto their shoulders. “I don’t know what’s the feeling of passing out, but I was very close,” Brito said of the post-game celebration. “There was no way for me to breathe. I was just trying to jump and get as much fresh air as I could but it was very hard. I mean, we were expecting it if we won, and our student section is magical.”
Brito finished with 15 points to go along with eight rebounds and three assists. Queta ended with 13 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out. Freshman Justin Bean added nine points and six rebounds for the Aggies. USU finished shooting 47 percent from the field, and only 29 percent from 3-point range, both numbers being buoyed by Merrill’s 4-7 shooting from downtown and 8-19 shooting overall.
“Sam is the guy,” Brito said. “When we’re in scoring trouble, when we can’t score for a few possessions, you want to look for Sam because he’s the one that can get those shots that only he can make.”
Seniors Dwayne Brown Jr. and Quinn Taylor were honored before the game as part of Senior Night, each receiving a raucous applause from the packed crowd. Brown finished with five points and two rebounds on the night. Taylor filled the stat sheet with two points, four rebounds, three assists, and four blocks for the game.
In front of an announced crowd of 10,378 people, the seventh-largest crowd every for a Utah State basketball game, the Aggies fed off the energy of the sellout crowd.
“Obviously a very energetic atmosphere,” Merrill said. “The crowd was unbelievable. We couldn’t have done that without them. I think they helped more than people realize.”
The win may prove vital for Utah State’s NCAA tournament hopes, giving the Aggies a marquee victory for their resume toward a possible at-large bid. It was the first victory over a ranked team for USU since 2007, when the Aggies also beat Nevada, both in the regular season and during the WAC tournament.
“I just hope they’re watching us,” Merrill said concerning the NCAA selection committee that decides the tournament field. “I feel that we’re one of the 64 best teams in the country, but our goal is to win a MW championship first and foremost, and then we’ll worry about the tournament later on.”
Utah State is now tied atop the MW standings along with Nevada, and stands only one win away from at least a share of the regular season title. The Aggies were picked to finish in ninth place in the conference preseason poll.
“It’s always impossible until you make it possible,” coach Smith said. “What I’m most proud of is how we’ve stuck together through thick and thin. Our chemistry is just incredible, and we have really good discipline. It’s very rare with this team that we don’t show up to practice ready to go… I think the process is what matters and the results will happen.”
Utah State can secure at least a share of the MW regular season title on Tuesday when they travel to take on Colorado State. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 7 pm MST.