LOGAN – Neemias Queta’s back.
And that’s a concern for the rest of the Mountain West.
Utah State’s star center returned on Saturday afternoon, albeit on a minutes restriction, to spark a key second-half run for #25 Utah State University as the Aggies weathered every Fresno State punch en route to a 77-70 overtime victory at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
“I think we’re a veteran team,” senior Sam Merrill said, “and we found a way to get some stops to come back from that eight-point deficit and finally make some shots down the stretch. We’re fortunate to come out with the win tonight.”
An offensive clinic in the first half, it was not. Both teams shot less than 32 percent from the field out of the gates. The Aggies received their emotional boost at the 10:18 mark when Queta checked in for the first time this season. The boost never materialized on the scoreboard, however. Neither team accrued a lead larger than four points in the first 20 minutes.
Both offenses improved significantly after halftime, but an untimely drought for USU allowed the Bulldogs to build an 8-point lead in the first seven minutes of the second half. USU immediately responded with an 11-2 run to retake the lead at 44-43 with 8:29 remaining, sparked partly by Queta’s lone second-half stint. The deficit never crept beyond four points in either direction through the remainder of regulation.
“It was exciting to see (Queta) back,” head coach Craig Smith said. “What was their lead in the second half? Eight? We put Queta back in there and the game flipped pretty quickly at that point. He was on a minutes restriction and we utilized those minutes.”
In the final minutes in a back-and-forth affair, USU seemed to have gained control via a 59-55 lead with 1:43 remaining. A 3-pointer by Fresno State’s New Williams trimmed the deficit to a single point. After two free throws from Brito rebuilt USU’s lead to three, Fresno State had one final opportunity. Utah State’s defense hung tough, forcing a contested and off-balance three by Williams which rattled in at the buzzer to force overtime.
“That was rough. You have a grind-out game like that and you feel like you have it right there and then he hits that shot,” Merrill said. “We were just talking to each other like ‘we’ve got to move on. There’s still five minutes left to go.’ And we always talk about ‘next best action.’ So any time you make a mistake or a team hits a tough three like that or something bad happens, you just have to work through the next best action and move on. That’s what we did.”
Utah State’s offense came alive in the extra session. The Aggies shot 60 percent from the field, including 2-3 from behind the arc. With USU leading 68-67, junior Abel Porter drained a corner 3 and two FTs on the ensuing possession to put the Aggies up 73-67 with 26 seconds remaining. Another two FTs from Bean further iced the game.
“Sam (Merrill) just has so much gravity on offense that sometimes all five guys want to guard him,” Porter said. “It just left me wide open in the corner. We had shot the ball terribly but when you’re that open, you can’t pass up a shot like that… It’s always my goal to try and stay even keel no matter what time it is, no matter if it’s overtime, no matter if it’s a one-point game. I just take every shot like it’s the exact same. Yeah, I end up in those spots sometimes where I get to take the big one. Luckily, I’m able to make them.”
Merrill led the Aggies with 24 points on 9-16 shooting with eight rebounds and three assists. Bean recorded another double-double, his sixth of the year, tallying 14 points with 13 rebounds, three assists and five steals. Porter finished with a season-high 13 points, seven of which came in overtime. Junior Diogo Brito also reached double-digits, almost recording a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds along with five assists. As a team, the Aggies shot 31-34 from the FT line.
“Obviously a rough offensive night for us,” Porter said. “But it’s always good when you have a team that can kind of win the ugly ones. Luckily we strapped down on defense there at the end and were able to get some stops. Our free throws were huge. We made our free throws and that ended up being a big part of the game.”
In his first game of the season due to injury, Queta finished with six points, all from the FT line, with one rebound and one block.
“At the end of the day, it’s not my decision. It’s the doctor’s and our athletic trainer,” coach Smith said. “He made a difference tonight. I’m not saying we would’ve won or lost, but I know this: he made an impact on that game and particularly on that second half.”
The Aggies struggled from deep, shooting 4-19 from behind the arc. It was USU’s worst 3-point shooting effort since shooting 19 percent in a 70-54 win over San Diego State on February 26, 2019. Timely shooting in overtime proved Utah State’s friend, however, as the Aggies shot 2-3 from 3-point range to help seize the victory.
“I think there was a confidence issues,” Merrill said. “But you see Diogo (Brito) who misses like four in a row in the first half and then he comes down late in the game and hits a big contested three. And Abel (Porter) I feel hasn’t even attempted a three in four games, and we’ve been on him for that for not shooting the ball. And he hits a big shot. We’re constantly talking to each other. ‘Stay confident. The next one’s in.’ We’ve seen each other shoot. We know we all can shoot. We just have to keep working through it.”
Utah State is now 9-1 on the season and 2-0 in MW play. The Aggies will take a break from conference play, returning to the court on Tuesday to play non-Division I Saint Katherine. USU will play five non-conference games before resuming MW play on New Year’s Day versus UNLV.
“You absolutely get everyone’s best shot,” Porter said. “We just need to know that going into every single game that we’re going to get the best shots from every player, the best shots from them as a team. It’s good to know we can grind out some wins but I think also we need to focus on having a little better start every single game and get out, get going and maybe build a lead.”
Tipoff versus Saint Katherine is currently set for Tuesday at 7 pm MST.