Consider the mountain conquered.
Utah State ran away at the start of the second half, defeating San Diego State 64-57 to win the Aggies’ first Mountain West title. Junior Sam Merrill was named the MW tournament Most Valuable Player.
“As someone who grew up a Utah State fan and grew up watching Utah State go to the tournament and win conference championships, it means the world to me,” Merrill said. “And it means the world to us as a team… We’ve worked so hard and we’ve come together as a team. And I’m still sitting here thinking from where we were, I just — I don’t know. I still can’t believe it. It’s an incredible feeling.
Physicality dominated the first 20 minutes, as a light whistle allotted both teams to defend with intensity and brutality. With points at a premium, the Aggies fought their way into the paint to grab an 18-12 advantage in points in the paint over the Aztecs. Freshman Neemias Queta particularly enjoyed success in the first half, grabbing five rebounds to go along with his 11 points while going 5-5 from the free throw line.
Junior Sam Merrill struggled from the perimeter in the first half, going 0-5 from behind the 3-point line. Despite his struggles from outside, Merrill managed nine points in the first half by going 3-4 from inside the arc. Merrill’s struggles were placated by the impressive play of sophomore Abel Porter, who finished the first half with 10 points on a perfect 4-4 shooting, including 2-2 from deep.
“We know Abel’s a really good player for us,” Queta said. “He’s just always with a smile. He’s always trying to calm us down whenever we’re nervous or anything like that. We weren’t surprised about that. We just kept on playing and he hit some big shots and did whatever he needed to and helped us a lot.”
Utah State came roaring out of the locker rooms in the second half, kicking off the second 20-minute period with a 13-0 run on the strength of two 3-pointers from Merrill and freshman Brock Miller to take a 47-32 lead with 15:27 remaining.
“We didn’t feel like we played all that well in the first half and yet we were still up by two,” Merrill said. “So we were pretty confident coming out of the half. But Coach gave us a couple of adjustments we needed to make that were obviously very helpful and stressed the importance of those first five minutes of the second half, and that’s when we went on that big run.”
From there, USU clung to its advantage as the Aztecs slowly crept back into the game. The lead fell to only five points with 2:41 remaining when SDSU’s Matt Mitchell sank a 3-pointer to make it 57-52. Queta responded for the Aggies almost immediately, draining a tough layup to extend USU’s lead back to 59-52. After the offense gave the Aggies the lead, however, it was the defense that cinched the game for USU. Utah State held the Aztecs to 27 percent shooting in the second half.
“This has been our calling card all year,” head coach Craig Smith said. “We’re pretty good on offense… but it’s been our defense. To hold a team like that to 33 percent for the game and 27 percent in the second half, that’s how you’re able to close out games and that’s how you’re able to close out championships.”
Following a free throw from Brito, Devin Watson again brought the Aztecs to within five points with a 3-pointer to make it 60-55. In the final minute of the game, however, USU turned to Merrill, who sank four straight free throws to preserve the game for the Aggies.
“As a coach, everyone operates their program differently,” coach Smith said. “We truly operate like being a family. And these guys have been unbelievable.”
After an inessential tip-in from SDSU at the buzzer to reach the final score, the Aggies celebrated at midcourt having won the program’s first MW title and punching USU’s first ticket to the NCAA tournament since 2011. The entire team and staff took part in the subsequent net-cutting celebration, with coach Smith the last to ascend the ladder.
“Before I came here I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Queta said. “But as soon as I practiced, I knew we were going to be this good. And we just kept on working the whole year and it felt awesome just to get win after win after win. And that doesn’t happen like that. You have to work for it. And we did. I’m pretty sure we did and it shows.”
For the third straight game of the tournament, Merrill led the Aggies in scoring with 23 points. He also added six rebounds in the effort. Queta finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks. Porter was the final Aggie in double-figures, scoring 10 points along with three assists and two steals.
“I’m so proud of our team,” coach Smith said. “Obviously just the camaraderie, the chemistry that we have. I’ve been coaching 23 years. And I’ve been very fortunate to be on some very good teams, coached an NAIA school that played in the national championship. These guys, I’ve never seen a group just bond together and just come as far as we have over the last 10, 11 months or so.”
The last time Utah State could claim conference dominance was in 2011, when the Aggies went 30-3 en route to both a WAC regular season and tournament championship. That season, USU was awarded a 12th-seed in the NCAA tournament, losing to Kansas State in the first round. Utah State last won an NCAA tournament game in 2001 against Ohio State.
“Actually my goal is to win an NCAA tournament game,” Merrill said. “So this was obviously — this is incredible. But I feel like we have a lot more left in the tank and we’re going to definitely try and show that wherever we end up this next weekend.”
Next season, USU could be well-positioned to defend their conference title. The Aggies return the majority of the roster, with only seniors Dwayne Brown Jr. and Quinn Taylor currently set to graduate from Utah State. For now, though, the team has their eyes set on the present season.
“From the start of the year our guys really wanted to bring the spectrum magic back. No doubt we did that,” coach Smith said. “And to get to this point is really, I mean it’s almost a Cinderella story. And certainly it’s been a magical ride for this year. And our journey is not done yet. And that’s the whole thing. We talk about winning and finding a way to win and how do you need to win. But at the same time it’s a balancing act. It’s the process. And you just gotta keep getting better every day out.”
The Aggies will learn who their next opponent will be on Sunday when the NCAA tournament’s field of 68 teams will be announced.