For the first time this season, the Aggies had to lean on their defensive effort.
They got along just fine, though.
Utah State held Northern Iowa down on their way to a 71-52 victory at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum Wednesday evening. Sam Merrill scored a game-high 20 points and did a stellar job defending UNI’s leading scorer, AJ Green.
“We had to really grind, especially the first 27 or 28 minutes of the game,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “… To beat those guys, you’ve got to beat them. They make it ugly. That first half was not pretty on the offensive end.”
The Aggies (6-1) overcame a less-than-perfect first half. Utah State led 31-23 at the break, but committed seven turnovers and a few mental errors. They tightened things up in the final 20 minutes to come away with their fourth home victory of the season.
After struggling through some offensive breakdowns in the first half the Aggies recommitted to attacking the basket. Of USU’s 30 points in the paint, 20 came in the second half. The boys in white-and-blue also took much better care of the rock as they only turned the ball over three more times.
USU used a lockdown stretch in the middle of the second half to give itself some cushion. The Aggies went on an 11-4 run to take a 56-39 lead with 6:41 remaining in the game. During the stretch, Utah State held Northern Iowa (3-4) without a field goal and forced four missed shots from the floor.
“We defended our tail off,” Smith said. “We defended so well.”
Green, the Panthers’ point guard, entered the game averaging 18.3 points per contest. The true freshman had put up at least 15 points per game before Wednesday night. The Aggies limited Green to seven points on 2 of 13 from the field in 32 minutes.
“We were able to come at him,” Smith said. “When you play a guy like that, it’s not always just the one guy guarding him. You’ve got to guard him with five guys, and our guys did a good job on that.”
Merrill drew the assignment of guarding Green and he worked hard to take him out of his usual flow.
“He comes off a lot of ball screens and a lot of dribble handoff action,” Merrill said of guarding Green. “You’ve got to get into him. The bigs did a really good job of helping off of those. … We put an emphasis on putting our hands up and trying to bother him, and like the stats say, we did a pretty good job.”
John Knight III did a nice job of providing some defensive relief on Green as well. The ultra-athletic guard pestered Green off of the bench in the second half. Overall, Green and the Panthers shot 31% from the field.
“I think that’s our third or maybe fourth time that we’ve held our opponent to 35 percent or less,” Smith said. “I just can’t tell you how hard that is to do. That is so difficult to do. That’s hard to do from defending the three, let alone holding a team to that kind of percentage defensively.”
It was Merrill’s fourth 20-point game of the season. He went 2 of 4 from 3-point range and 4 of 4 from the free throw line to go along with five rebounds and three assists. The second half was smoother for the Aggies on the offensive end. Utah State was able to generate quality shots as the Aggies recorded 10 assists on 14 made field goals in the second half.
Quinn Taylor scored eight points and pulled down five boards in 35 minutes of play. Taylor was forced into more action as fellow big-man Neemias Queta was assessed his fourth foul of the game with over 16 minutes left. Dwayne Brown Jr. and Able Porter both contributed off of the bench. Brown Jr. scored nine points in 17 minutes and Porter had five points on 2 of 3 shooting in a season-high 16 minutes. Crew Ainge had a team-high four assists for the Aggies.
Utah State will now hit the road. Four of their next five games are away from the Spectrum, including a stretch of three straight that will begin at UC Irvine on Saturday, Dec. 1st at 7 PM.
“That’s a huge opportunity for us,” Merrill said of playing UC Irvine. “They’re probably going to win their league, barring anything crazy happening. That would be a huge win for us, come March.”