It has been eight years since Utah State last made a conference tournament title game.
The wait is over.
The Aggies dominated from tipoff, never trailing en route to a 85-60 win over Fresno State to advance to the program’s first-ever Mountain West title game. USU will advance to take on San Diego State for the MW crown.
“We played a very good team,” USU head coach Craig Smith said, “and we played a great game on both ends of the floor. And we played well on offense but I thought we were even better defensively… So give our guys credit. We have five guys in double-digits and it was just a great team effort by the Aggies.”
Utah State immediately established themselves, using a 9-2 run in the opening three minutes of the game and an 8-0 shortly thereafter to take firm control of the game. Fresno State attempted a comeback, cutting the lead to only five points after an 8-2 run. The Aggies responded with a 15-3 run over the next four minutes that effectively quashed any momentum for the Bulldogs. USU closed the half with a pair of 3-pointers from juniors Diogo Brito and Sam Merrill to enter the locker rooms with a 50-27 lead.
“To be honest, we don’t take a lot of time to celebrate,” Merrill said. “I think that’s part of what makes us a good team is when we hit a 3, we’re immediately yelling at each other ‘hey, we’ve got to get a stop, we’ve got to get a stop.’ Or when we have a dunk, we’re celebrating but we’re just trying to focus on the next play. To be honest, I didn’t even know we’d scored 50 points until we were in the locker room. I just knew we were up by 20-something. That’s our goal is to continue to focus on the next play and that will be how we try to do things tomorrow.”
The Aggies coasted through the second half, with the lead never falling below 20 points. The lead ballooned to its largest size when sophomore Abel Porter sank a 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining to put USU up 85-50.
“The last couple of years were tough for us, obviously not playing up to the standards of Utah State basketball,” Merrill said. “But it’s been such a fun ride this year being able to finally get back to where, almost to where Utah State belongs. And we’re so excited and grateful for our fans who were awesome again tonight.”
With five players scoring in double figures, the effort was one of USU’s most well-balanced performances of the season. Merrill led the Aggies with 22 points, adding five rebounds, five assists, and two steals. Brito followed closely behind, scoring 20 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists. Freshman Neemias Queta notched his first double-double of the tournament with 10 points and 13 rebounds, also pitching in four assists. Sophomore Abel Porter rebounded from his rough performance versus New Mexico by recording 11 points, two rebounds, and two assists. Freshman Brock Miller rounded out the double-digit scorers for the Aggies with 10 points.
“Our entire offensive system is predicated on just taking what comes and not forcing things and moving the ball and sharing the ball,” Merrill said. “Me personally and as a team, we’re just going to play our way.”
The game stood in drastic contrast to the first two meetings between the Aggies and the Bulldogs, when both games were decided by a single point with each team claiming one victory. Twenty-five points represents the largest margin of victory ever between the two sides.
“We played them twice. They played us twice. They know us inside and out and backwards. We know them inside out and backwards,” coach Smith said. “You go back to that experience of playing them twice and you have a good feel for their personnel, and you know their scheme… You have an idea what to expect.”
On top of winning the overall game, USU dominated the smaller facets within the game. The Aggies enjoyed a 43-29 rebounding margin, plus a 23-12 margin for team assists. USU also outscored Fresno State in points off turnovers (18-8), second-chance points (15-3), bench points (27-9), fast-break points (8-6), and points in the paint (34-26).
“It started on the defensive end,” Merrill said. “When we’re rolling like that defensively, that ignites our offense. And I thought we did a great job moving the ball. We hit shots. We finished at the rim. Got a little sloppy there in the second half, but you could definitely make a case for that being our best overall game this year.”
With San Diego State’s 65-56 victory over Nevada, the Aggies will square off with the Aztecs for the MW title. The two teams split the season series, with SDSU defeating USU 68-63 in San Diego before the Aggies exacted revenge with a 70-54 victory several weeks later in Logan.
“I thought the main difference was that when we beat them, we just believed — we went into the game knowing that we could beat them,” Brito said. “We studied them really hard and just that mindset that we can beat these guys and when we did, you know, it just felt good.”
Utah State will be playing for their first conference title since 2011, when the Aggies went 30-4 and won the WAC tournament. With the win on Friday night, USU has already advanced to its furthest point ever in the MW tournament.
“I feel that we want to cut down the nets tomorrow,” Merrill said. “We want to win a championship… So we’ll just focus on tomorrow. Our main goal is to cut down some nets tomorrow. That the would be pretty fun, so we’re going to play like it.”
Tip-off for the MW championship game is set for Saturday at 4 pm MST.