By Jeff Hunter
For the Deseret News
LOGAN — It was a night that the Aggies won't soon forget. And an evening the Wolf Pack surely wish they could.
A matchup between the first- and last-place teams went decidedly in Utah State's favor, with the Aggies knocking out the Mountain West Conference frontrunners 74-57 Wednesday night at the Spectrum.
"We played really hard. The first half was really close, the second half we kind of blew it open a little bit," USU senior forward Jalen Moore said. "It feels good to get two wins in a row, and now we get to go play the second-place team. Winning tonight shows that we can play with anybody and beat anybody. It was a huge confidence boost for us, and we needed that."
Coming into the night, Nevada (7-3 in the Mountain West, 18-5 overall) had won six of its last seven games and were first in the conference in scoring (79.8 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage (39.0 percent), and fourth in field goal percentage (45.4 percent). But in front of 6,122 fans at the Spectrum, the Wolf Pack shot just 31.9 percent from the field while connecting on a mere 4 of 26 3-point attempts.
"Obviously, it was the best defensive performance since I took over," declared second-year USU head coach Tim Duryea. "We were talking as a staff, and considering the competition and considering the importance of the game in terms of our path and trying to dig ourselves out of the hole we've put ourselves in, I thought it was an A-plus defensive performance for 40 minutes."
Offensively, freshman guard Koby McEwen continued to shine for the Aggies (4-6, 10-11), scoring 26 points and grabbing six rebounds. Senior forward Jalen Moore (13 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists) flirted with a triple-double, while freshman guard Sam Merrill added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.
However, it was Merrill's defense that his coach and teammates couldn't stop talking about after the game.
Primarily charged with guarding Marcus Marshall, the Mountain West's leading scorer at 21.1 ppg, the Bountiful High product had a lot to do with Nevada's senior guard going 1 for 12 from the floor and 0 for 7 from 3-point range while scoring just two points.
"A lot of guys did a lot of good things, but the job that Sam Merrill did on Marcus Marshall ... I didn't think it was possible," Duryea said of Merrill, who didn't pick up a foul in 36 minutes of court time. "I was thinking that if we held the league's leading scorer to 12 or 13 points that we'd be in great shape, but Sam — and Shane (Rector) guarded him for a few possessions — did a phenomenal job."
Tied 25-25 at halftime, the Aggies shot 68.2 percent from the field in the second half to pull away by as many as 19 points. The home team ended up shooting 49.0 percent for the game while going 7 for 19 from 3-point range and 17 for 26 from the free-throw line.
While neither team led by more than three points in the first half, Utah State slowly managed to pull away midway through the second half as the Aggies started to connect on some shots while the Pack's shooting just got worse.
Merrill came through with possibly the biggest play of that period, burying a 3-pointer from the top of the key as the shot clock was winding down to stretch USU's advantage to 59-49 with about four minutes to go.
"Sam made the shot of the game," Duryea said. "The shot clock is going down, we don't have a lot going, the game is turning and he makes a 3 to put us back up 10."
Rebounding was key to USU pulling off the upset. In addition to Moore's career-high 15 boards, the Aggies got a career-best 13 rebounds from sophomore Alexis Dargenton, and, overall outboarded the Wolf Pack 50 to 36.
"That was awesome to see," Duryea said of Moore and Dargenton's 28 combined rebounds. "Alexis blamed Jalen in the locker room for stealing one of his rebounds, or he would have had 14."
The Aggies suffered through two scary moments in the win, one early in the contest and one in the final moments.
While guarding D.J. Fenner just over two minutes into the game, McEwen stripped the ball out of the Nevada guard's hands, but then Fenner ended up kicking his right leg out and catching McEwen in the chin with his foot. As McEwen crumpled to the floor, Fenner grabbed the ball and went to the rim, where his attempt was blocked by Dargenton.
But at that point, the officials called time, reviewed the play and ended us assessing Fenner with a flagrant foul. McEwen was able to shoot the free throws and ended up playing 33 minutes.
Then, with 3:16 left in the game and the Aggies up 60-49, Rector chased down a long rebound and sprinted for the basket with Nevada forward Cameron Oliver on his heels. The senior point guard attempted a dunk, but was fouled by Oliver — the fifth for Nevada's second-leading scorer — and went down hard underneath the basket.
"He's going to need stitches over his eye, and he fell awkwardly on his wrist," Duryea said of Rector. "They are monitoring him for a concussion; he's not in concussion protocol yet, they'll probably know more tonight or tomorrow.
"... If he doesn't have a concussion, the thing that will hurt him Saturday more than anything is the wrist. He got it caught under him when he fell. That was a brutal collision. But I saw him going in. He knew he had to go try and dunk it; any layup there, Oliver blocks."
Oliver ended up scoring 14 points and pulling down 13 rebounds before his early exit, while Fenner and sophomore swingman Jordan Caroline both finished with 15 points.
"I thought Utah State was phenomenal in the second half," Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said. "Marcus couldn’t get going at all. We were stagnant on offense and played our worst game of the year, and we played on the road against a team that has a lot of talent. Their record does not indicate who they are at all."