LAS VEGAS – “It was a heck of a basketball game,” head coach Craig Smith said.
“March Madness is definitely here.”
Utah State overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 10 minutes of regulation, surviving another close contest with New Mexico in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament to secure a 75-70 win on Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“It was a great game. We had to overcome lot of different things tonight,” coach Smith said. “New Mexico always shows up big-time at this tournament. But credit to our guys to find a way to win… Just really, really proud of our effort and that’s one down and got to be ready to go tomorrow.”
The Aggies seemed to be in control early with a 16-3 run, taking a double-digit lead into the under-12 media timeout. Merrill powered the early run with 10 points. As in Albuquerque, however, New Mexico quickly erased USU’s lead courtesy of outside shooting. The Lobo’s JaQuan Lyle poured in 11 points, including three 3-pointers, in less than two-and-a-half minutes to trim Utah State’s lead to 26-22 with 7:46 remaining in the opening half. Both sides traded punches until the sides entered the locker rooms tied at 33.
“Well, (JaQuan) Lyle couldn’t miss,” coach Smith said. “He had that stretch in that first half when we were up, I think 23-9, and then he caught fire and made four out of five, I think, scored four out of five possessions or something like that, and it just felt like a wave.”
In the second game between the two sides in less than a week, the officiating allowed for each side to seek out contact, leading to a high degree of physicality in the first 20 minutes. Diogo Brito took a hard fall after getting undercut by a Lobo defender while going up for a layup, forcing the senior to exit the game for the remainder of the first half before returning after halftime.
“So just got to play,” Brito said. “You just got to play through pain, especially on these occasions. Like, I don’t want this to be my last game. That was definitely one of my mindsets towards the end. You just got to play through pain, and I guess, you know, whether you’re hurt or not New Mexico doesn’t really care, so I had to go out there and just play my best as hard as I can.”
The second half script flipped in the first five minutes when Merrill picked up four fouls, sending USU’s leading scorer to the bench for an extended length of time. With the Aggies’ steadying presence on offense missing, the Lobos took advantage on a 16-4 run 57-46 with 9:38 remaining and fording Coach Smith to to call timeout. Out of the timeout and facing an early exit from the MW tournament, the Aggies responded with a 17-6 run to knot the score up at 63 with 3:40 remaining.
“I don’t know exactly what was mentioned,” Merrill said, “but those last few timeouts, I think he called one earlier, probably three or four minutes earlier, and then there was the media timeout and they had just slowly gotten a bigger lead. So there was definitely a sense of urgency. But also, Coach just kept telling us, ‘Just stay poised, stay calm.’ We had made some silly turnovers that we always do against New Mexico. They could be full-court press or not and somehow we always make silly turnovers. So the mindset was just stay poised, but we’ve got to play with a sense of urgency and that’s what we did.”
New Mexico’s Lyle again put the Lobos in front, but with most of the momentum on USU’s side, Merrill and the Aggies did not let up. Merrill scored five straight points for Utah State, including a pull-up 3 to give USU their first lead since 14:28 remaining in the second half. Again, the Lobos answered, this time via a 3-pointer by Vance Jackson. Brito put the Aggies back in front with a layup on a broken play in the paint, before New Mexico’s Zane Martin continued the back-and-forth affair with a game-tying jumper with 1:33 remaining.
“Coach just let me go one-on-one for about three or four straight possessions there,” Merrill said, “and I don’t know if he is a big fan of one-on-one basketball, but he let me do it and… I just felt confident and stepped into it and made it.”
On one of the most important possessions of Utah State’s season, the ball found Brito on the right wing with the shot clock winding down. USU’s perennial “glue guy” became the main focus in the spotlight, draining a 3-pointer while falling into the corner to put the Aggies up 73-70 with slightly over one minute remaining.
— USU Men's Hoops (@USUBasketball) March 6, 2020
“At first I thought they were going to just trap him,” Brito said, “either from me or from Sean. They went zone and we ran a play to get the ball to Sam in the corner. They actually did a pretty good job. So at that time, I just thought ‘I got to find a way to make a play’ and I saw Sam driving baseline and from that point on I said ‘I’m just going to go crack back and shoot it.’ I didn’t think twice the whole time and just let it go.”
After the Aggies forced a contested 3-pointer from New Mexico’s Jackson, Utah State added insurance to their lead when sophomore Justin Bean hit a layup off an assist from freshman Sean Bairstow to put USU up 75-70 with 19 seconds remaining. Two missed 3-pointers from New Mexico on the final possession sealed the gutsy victory for the Aggies.
“I think when you can get through that stuff you find out who you are,” coach Smith said. “For our guys, Sean Bairstow, his numbers aren’t going to look amazing, but he’s a true freshman and he gets thrown to the wolves and that play he made at the end to Bean as the shot clock was winding down– to have the poise, to play off of two feet, get that guy to help up and dump it down, and then Bean makes that great finish… It’s March Madness and you’ve got to be able to win in any style of play… Certainly I was emotional at times, but I thought the whole game was very, very emotional and that’s what it’s about.”
Merrill led Utah State with 29 points on 10-15 shooting, playing the final 9:38 with four fouls. Brito ended with 15 points on 6-9 shooting with seven rebounds. Bean added 10 points and 15 rebounds to notch his 16th double-double of the season. Sophomore Neemias Queta finished with eight points, seven rebounds, plus one block and steal.
New Mexico’s JaQuan Lyle led the Lobos with 20 points. Corey Manigault added another 18, while Vance Jackson was the final Lobo in double figures with 11 points.
“Got to give credit to New Mexico. I thought they played fantastic,” coach Smith said. “It was an odd deal with the schedule. We just played those guys five days ago, and so there’s a lot of familiarity. But they were playing really, really good basketball. They’re a very talented team and they really kind of redefined who they are, honestly, in the last 10 days or so and we’ve got to give them a lot of credit with that.”
Utah State also faced New Mexico in the quarterfinals of last season’s MW tournament, though the parallels did not stop there. In both games, the teams were tied at halftime and Utah State only regained the lead in the final minutes of regulation. Brito’s performance particularly mirrored itself this season. In 2019, Brito had 14 points and also hit a crucial 3-pointer in the closing moments to propel Utah State to a win.
“I don’t want to speak too early because it’s still the first day of the tournament, but I definitely love the big games,” Brito said. “That’s what we work for and that’s why you stay in the gym even when things are not going your way during the season. And I really love playing in the conference tournament. It’s the best showcase in the whole conference. And like I said, just keep working even when things are not going your way and I guess in the big time games I think I take even more pride and I really love these games.”
With the victory, Utah State reaches the MW semifinals for the third straight season. The Aggies are now 9-5 all-time in the MW tournament and have not lost since losing 83-68 to New Mexico in the semifinals of the 2018 tournament.
“Well if you would have asked me that last year I would have said (tournament experience) doesn’t matter, because of what we did. But it definitely matters,” coach Smith said. “It matters to know that any time in life, whether it’s basketball or anything, when you can draw back on those experiences and learn from those types of things, I think it can make a big difference. But we’re a different team than last year, we have some new guys out there, but there’s no doubt that it can make a big difference.”
Tip-off for Utah State’s semifinal match-up versus the winner between Nevada and Wyoming is currently set for tomorrow night at 9:30 pm MST.