LAS VEGAS – Utah State’s dreams of a Mountain West title almost busted in the quarterfinals. Down late, and with those title hopes on the line, the Aggies exemplified the play that earned them the second seed in the MW, ultimately defeating New Mexico 91-83 to advance to the conference semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“This is March Madness,” head coach Craig Smith said. “You’ll get everybody’s best shot because nobody wants to go home and everybody kind of resets their record and resets their mindset and so forth. We’re fortunate to pull out that victory.”
The Aggies struggled terribly against New Mexico’s full-court press, surrendering 24 turnovers in the game, and a gaudy 15 in the first half. Despite the Lobos shooting only 40 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, and 25 percent from behind the arc, USU’s turnover issues allowed New Mexico to remain in the game with the two teams entering the half tied at 39 apiece.
“We needed more urgency, that was the first thing,” freshman Justin Bean said. “We could be scared. That’s what (Coach Smith) told us. Don’t hide from the ball. Make sure you flash… He had a couple of good plays that he drew for us that we practiced and worked on, and we were able to execute them and really attack the middle.”
Turnovers continued to plague the Aggies early in the second half, as three turnovers in the first three minutes helped New Mexico to a 13-5 run to take a 52-44 lead. USU committed only seven turnovers over the final 17 minutes of the game. A 6-0 run spanning less than a minute brought the Aggies back to re-tie the game at 57 all. Over the next 11 minutes of game time, neither team managed to build a lead larger than four points. Down 78-76 with 3:24 remaining, the Aggies answered emphatically, closing the door and sealing the game with a 15-5 run.
“We’ve been saying this from day one: you’ve got to earn it,” coach Smith said. “You’ve got to earn respect. You’ve got to earn victory. You’ve got to earn everything in life.”
Merrill again led the Aggies with 23 points, adding nine assists and four rebounds. Freshman Neemias Queta finished with 16 points, six rebounds, and six blocks. Sophomore Abel Porter added eight points and four assists while facing the brunt of New Mexico’s full-court press, while freshman Brock Miller added six points for the game, including two 3-pointers in the first half which allowed the Aggies to keep pace with the Lobos.
“We found a way to win,” coach Smith said. “Things were not going great and things didn’t look– they looked a little bleak for us there for a stretch. But at the end of the day, our guys have great resolve. They have great pride. They want to represent Utah State in the right fashion.”
The efforts of Bean and junior Diogo Brito were a strong force behind USU’s second-half push. Brito struggled in the first half, failing to score a point or even attempt a shot while recording only two rebounds, one assist, and five turnovers. The second half was a different story, as Brito scored 14 points and came away with a critical steal in the final minute to help USU seal the victory.
“He would be the first to admit he didn’t play well in the first half,” Merrill said. “But as a team, we’re constantly trying to focus on the next play, and Diogo (Brito) has been so big for us all year, but especially in this stretch run. So we have all the confidence in the world in him and in the rest of the team. He was awesome and huge for us in the second.”
Bean recorded career-highs in both points and rebounds, ending the game with 14 points and 15 rebounds while also adding two assists, one block, and one steal.
“Credit to my teammates… I tried to make good cuts to the basket and try and fly around the rim and they were able to give me some good passes so I could go up and finish,” Bean said. “Things that usually don’t show up in the stat sheet are toughness and grit, and this team has that. I think we collectively as a team did a great job just not giving up.”
Utah State can point to the free throw line as a major reason for their victory. The Aggies shot 35-45, outscoring the Lobos by 18 points on points from the FT line.
“Coach (Smith) told us to stay on attack, stay on attack,” Merrill said. “Even though we had 24 turnovers, we got a lot of really good looks and got a lot of shots at the rim and obviously shot a ton of free throws. And that’s partially because of the way they played and partially because of the attack mode we were in.”
Their ticket to the semifinals punched, the Aggies will meet Fresno State for the third time this season after the Bulldogs defeated Air Force in the quarterfinals. The Aggies split two games with the Bulldogs in the regular season. Both games versus the Bulldogs were decided by a single point.
“Fresno (State) poses a lot of challenges to us,” Merrill said. “They obviously have really good guard play with Braxton (Huggins) and Deshon (Taylor)… They’ve got a lot of guys that can shoot it. They play with good pace. They’re really well-coached. They get a lot of good shots… I anticipate another fun game.”
Utah State’s game in the semifinals is set for Friday at 9:30 pm MST.