5 seconds..Abel catches the inbounds pass
4 seconds..Thybell shows a grin, his first of the night
3 seconds..Sam Merrill crosses the half court line watching Abel as he pulls from well above the arc.
2 seconds..shot goes up
1 second..Coach Craig Smith calmly makes his way towards the Husky bench to shake hands with Washington Head Coach Mike Hopkins.
Buzzer…Aggie players slowly get up to follow their coach. Matisse Dickerson raises both hands in the air, David Crisp does the same towards the Husky faithful. Final score of 78-61 from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, and in front of a crowd that was a ratio of 4-1 in favor of Aggie-maniacs. This feeling was unfamiliar as of late for Utah State. Their last loss was February 9th, after which they won 12 straight, including wins over those same Aztecs at home, another win over Nevada just four nights later to clinch a share of the regular season Mountain West title, followed by an epic run in the conference tournament to win the championship, once again beating the Aztecs, this time in the title game.
But this game, the first round of the NCAA tournament where Utah State had not shown its face since 2011, was what their big goal was. To not just be here, but to win. Aggies have not won a Big Dance game since 2001 versus Ohio State. But this year they were the 8th seed. They were the “home” team and when we all saw that their opponent would be the 9th seed Washington Huskies – PAC 12 regular season champs and runner up in the tournament after getting blasted by Oregon in the championship game – many, including the likes of President Obama, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Katz, and other “experts” picked Utah State to win.
Nevermind the fact that Coach Hopkins had won PAC 12 coach of the year, and had just received a $17.5 million extension one night before Washington’s NCAA tourney game, that keeps him in Husky land until 2025. Nevermind that Matisse Thybelle was the two-time conference defensive player of the year. Nevermind that Monte Dickerson, a 6’8” 245 lb (north of that when you actually see him) was on a rebounding hot streak with double digit boards in four straight games. No, this year was going to be different. At least that’s what many of us thought. But someone forgot to tell Washington.
From the tip-off Washington used its length, physicality, & athleticism to shut down the Aggie offense. The Huskies threw different looks at Neemias Queta every time he touched the ball. Some were doubles, others were one on one. Then they’d throw two guys at him depending where he was on the court when he had the ball. Sam Merrill, who finished with 10 points (lowest point total since Houston) the guy the Aggies always went to when the offense needed a spark, was harassed, beaten up, shadowed, grabbed, pulled, dropped by any defender that sniffed him. Sure he has seen this all year long, but this defense was different. Many of the players admitted after the game that even though they had seen film of the Huskies, you couldn’t help but be surprised when you played them on the court. Diogo Brito seemed in awe when he talked about the quickness of the defense, saying “You think you have an open look, then you catch the ball and turn around, there’s a defender right there.” The Huskies were right there. All night long.
But after the game was over, after the locker room had it’s cooling down period and doors opened up to the media, you found the unexpected. It seemed that the players were calm. No screaming, no yelling, no gnashing of teeth (Jordan Caroline, are you listening?). Everyone seemed to have taken a breath – and had a very brief moment to reflect. The Utah State Aggies were picked to finish 9th in their conference. That would have meant no regular season title, no NCAA tourney bid unless they caught fire and somehow won it all, no player of the year, coach of the year, defensive player of the year, nothing.
Utah State would have exited quietly, as they had done the previous seven years. So how did they respond? How about 28-6? A non-conference schedule that included wins over UC-Irvine, Saint Mary’s, a close loss to Arizona State, and a team-learning loss at Houston. What do all these opponents have in common? They all went to the NCAA Tourney. The Sun Devils won their play-in game before losing to Buffalo; UC-Irvine upset Kansas State; the Gaels lost in OT to Villanova; and, Houston is a 3 seed who stomped Georgia State. But more than that, Spectrum Magic returned, almost to its fullest form.
Instead of students trying to find something to do in Logan on a Saturday night, it was once again: “Hey you need a ride to the game?” The response from Aggie fans after Friday night was a positive one. They see potential in this team that brings back all but two (seniors Quinn Taylor and Dwayne Brown, Jr.) for next year as long as Neemias Queta decides to ride Aggie blue one more time. They saw what Craig Smith is capable of and very quickly he went from “Craig, who?” to “Craig, stay forever!”
His energy is contagious, his smile is endearing, his passion for not only USU men’s basketball success, but also the kids, as individuals to succeed is what won these players over. They bought in; his staff is a big help to that as well. So, let us reflect with a positive mind and grateful heart. Let us look forward to a bright future, a future that sees Coach Smith body surfing in the student section, Merrill burying a three from his sweet spot to ignite the Spectrum, a Queta dunk that encourages the flames, and a Justin Bean putback that just blows the Spectrum roof off and sets the historic arena into hysteria. After the game, fans will once again be walking back to their cars recapping their favorite highlights, and the next morning will tell those who didn’t come, “There’s no way you can miss the next game.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, Aggie fans all around, let us look forward to another exciting 2019-2020 Utah State men’s basketball season.