The Utah State men’s basketball team delivered a forceful statement to the rest of the Mountain West with an 82-65 victory over UNLV on Saturday afternoon at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. USU has now won six straight games in MW play.
“Offensively, we’re continuing to play well,” junior Sam Merrill said, “but on the defensive end is where we’re going to win the majority of our games and we did that tonight.”
The Aggies jumped out to an early 19-7 lead, after Merrill converted an and-one opportunity. The Rebels bounced back with an 11-2 run to trim USU’s lead to only three points at the 10:19 mark after a 3-pointer from Kris Clyborn. From then until halftime, Utah State outscored the Rebels 27-10, taking a 48-28 advantage at the break.
“We did a great job defensively,” head coach Craig Smith said. “Transition defense was key. They never really got loose on us…and then we were able to force the tempo and really get out and get some easy baskets in transition.”
In the second half, the teams largely played to a draw with USU’s lead remaining between 16 and 21 points for the first 10 minutes. With the chance to shut the door on a possible comeback, the Aggies pieced together a 12-0 run to extend the lead to 72-43 and put the game out of reach. With the victory all but assured, USU coasted down the stretch, with a 9-0 run from UNLV eating into USU’s lead before the final buzzer.
“That’s a great win for our program,” Coach Smith said. “I thought our guys played with great force tonight, and from the moment of the opening tip, were really aggressive and in attack mode all night… It’s a marquee win for us.”
Freshman Neemias Queta recorded his second straight double-double, and third in four games, with 10 points and 16 rebounds. Junior Diogo Brito added 15 points, plus five rebounds and three assists. Sophomore Abel Porter continued his stellar performance in conference play with nine points, two rebounds, and three assists. As a team, the Aggies recorded 22 assists on 30 field goals.
“We move the ball. We don’t get as stagnant,” Brito said. “Just move the ball and eventually, a guy will be open. We’ve been trying to throw the ball inside more and more every game, because it slows things down and opens things up. Having that inside presence also helps us a lot in getting open shots.”
The win matches Utah State’s season win total from last season with nine regular season games left to play. The Aggies won at least 20 games every season from 1999 through 2013, but have yet to reach that plateau in the past five seasons.
“I think we’re starting to build an identity of who we are and we have a good culture of playing hard and playing together as a team,” Merrill said. “It’s been a good run so far but our season goal wasn’t to match 17 wins. Our season goal was to win the MW title and go to the NCAA tournament so we’re going to continue to work toward that.”
Utah State’s position in the conference’s hierarchy was backed up by Saturday’s performance, with the Aggies maintaining a tie for second place with Fresno State. On Tuesday, USU will have the opportunity to grab sole possession of second place in their rematch at Fresno State. In the first meeting in Logan, USU led the entire game before a late 3-pointer gave the Bulldogs the win.
“Obviously, we owe them one after what happened here at our place,” Merrill said. “They’re a reall good team, as we know, but we went down there last year and won at their place. We’ll be confident and we’ll make the adjustments that we need to make.”
Tipoff between Utah State and Fresno State is set for Tuesday at 8:30 pm MST.