Our defense was really good this game. We prepped their stuff really well. Our coaches know how to guard that Princeton system, we executed the defensive plan and it was hard for them to get buckets. —Utah State guard Koby McEwen
LOGAN — In a game threatened to be postponed by the recent government shutdown, the Aggie defense ended up completely shutting down the Air Force offense Wednesday night at the Spectrum.
“Our defense was really good this game,” sophomore guard Koby McEwen said after Utah State’s 71-49 rout of the Falcons. “We prepped their stuff really well. Our coaches know how to guard that Princeton system, we executed the defensive plan and it was hard for them to get buckets.”
Air Force (8-11 overall, 2-5 in the Mountain West) shot just 32.7 percent from the field against the Aggies (11-11, 4-5), including a woeful 3 for 22 performance from 3-point range. The Falcons, who had won their two previous games — both on the road — before the government shutdown forced the postponement of last Saturday’s home game against Fresno State, trailed by as many as 25 points.
Utah State, meanwhile, was the beneficiary of an extremely efficient performance from sophomore guard Sam Merrill, who knocked down 8 of 10 shots, including 5 for 7 from long range, on his way to a game-high 21 points in 36 minutes.
“Obviously, Sam Merrill was unreal. I mean, unreal,” USU head coach Tim Duryea declared. “Leading our defense, communicating, and then, offensively: 8 for 10, 21 points. That’s as efficient as you can be as a player. I thought he was tremendous.”
McEwen also got to 20 points, but the point guard had to work a little harder for his buckets, driving hard to the basket for most of them. McEwen, who went 8 of 18 from the floor and 2 of 8 from 3-point range, also added seven rebounds and three assists while logging 37 minutes.
Junior forward Quinn Taylor added 13 points and eight rebounds, and sophomore guard Diogo Brito contributed nine points, six assists and five rebounds to help end USU’s season-worst, four-game losing streak.
“As a team, we played really solid,” Taylor said. “Anytime you play Air Force you know you're going to have to guard the system. They run Princeton so it's a lot of back cuts, a lot of talk. We guarded really well in the first half, and then came out in the second half and guarded even better. We were able to turn up the intensity and turn our stops into points and just kept rolling on what we started in the first half."
Air Force opened the game by scoring the first four points, but then Utah State went on a 10-0 run and never trailed again. There was one tie at 20-20, but the Aggies closed out the half strong to take a 29-25 lead into the locker room.
The Falcons started the contest 0 for 12 from 3-point range, finally get their first 3-pointer by Sid Tomes with 1:42 left in the first half.
“One for 15 from three in the first half; that was probably the biggest stat going,” Duryea noted.
The Aggies, conversely, needed up 13 seconds to get their first 3-pointer of the second half off of a set play for Merrill. The Bountiful High native then quickly added five more points after a couple of Air Force baskets, and Taylor and McEwen combined for five more points to force Falcons head coach Dave Pilipovich into calling a timeout at 16:23 with his team suddenly trailing 42-29.
But a couple of minutes later, McEwen signaled that the rout was truly on by driving along the baseline and into the midst of three Falcon defenders. He seemed to draw contact as he powered the ball up with both hands, but nothing was called as McEwen hit the floor and the ball somehow found it’s way to the basket.
“He’s a great player, and he plays for contact — a lot of contact,” Taylor said of McEwen. “He doesn’t get all of the calls, but he keeps playing and he’s going to score the ball,
When asked if he was more surprised his shot went in, or more surprised that he didn’t get the call, McEwen answered with a smile, “I was surprised that I didn’t get the foul. I was pissed.”
McEwen’s bucket left Utah State up by 15 points with 14:23 remaining, and the Aggies never slacked off defensively, helping to stretch their lead to as many as 25 points on three occasions down the stretch.
“A lot of credit to our guys,” Duryea said. “I thought they did a great job of handling the game plan and really being focused defensively on every possession.
“When you play Air Force, you know it’s going to be a possession type of game. Their time of possession is something that they take pride in, and you know that you’re going to have to guard for 15-20-25 seconds on a possession. It takes defensive patience and some defensive confidence, and our guys did a good job of preparing and then executing.”