We didn't have a doubt that we were going to win this game. I'm proud of my guys, I'm happy for Aggie nation and for beating the No. 1 team in the league. —USU guard Koby McEwen
LOGAN — Like the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, the Aggies knew that closing out their opponent in the final couple of minutes would not be easy.
The first-place Boise State Broncos came into Saturday night’s game at the Spectrum with a Brady-like reputation of being able to finish off close contests, so a two-point lead with 2:20 to go wasn’t exactly a comfortable advantage.
But like the world champion Eagles, the underdog Aggies found a way to finish of an upset of the Broncos, who had won seven of their last eight games and were poised to potentially move into the Top 25 with another victory.
“Boise State has won enough of those where they believe at that point that they’re going to win the game,” USU head coach Tim Duryea said following his team’s 71-65 victory in front of 8,421 fans. “Someone is going to make a play. Someone’s going to make a shot, and they’re going to come back and win. That’s what they’re thinking.
“So, I was proud of our guys for grabbing a hold of it right there, staying aggressive, looking down the floor and making some plays.”
Sophomore guard Koby McEwen led the way for the Aggies (14-12 overall, 7-6 in the Mountain West) with 23 points and five assists. The sophomore guard went 9 of 14 from the field and 5 of 9 from 3-point range in 36 foul-plagued minutes.
“Overall, we played a really good game, we fought hard all 40 minutes,” McEwen said. “We didn't have a doubt that we were going to win this game. I'm proud of my guys, I'm happy for Aggie nation and for beating the No. 1 team in the league.”
Sophomore guard Diogo Brito finished with a career-high 16 points for Utah State, while sophomore guard Sam Merrill (12 points) and junior forwards Dwayne Brown Jr. (10 points, six rebounds) and Quinn Taylor (eight points, five rebounds) just about completed the scoring for the Aggies, who got just two points from their bench.
But the Aggies were just grateful to have Brown and Taylor on the floor. Taylor didn’t even make the trip to Laramie for USU’s game at Wyoming on Wednesday due to the sudden reoccurrence of a heart issue, and Brown was extremely limited during the 18-point loss to the Cowboys thanks to a wicked case of the flu.
“That was best thing about it; it was so good to have Dwayne Brown and Quinn Taylor back on the court,” Duryea said. “Dwayne made remarkable strides the last couple of days. Brandon Wells, our trainer, deserves a high-five for sure because he has been living with that kid.
“When those two guys aren’t on the floor, we aren’t nearly as good of a team, as we saw Wednesday night.”
Boise State (20-5, 10-3) lost despite getting 28 points from senior guard Chandler Hutchison, who knocked down 11 of 17 field goal attempts in just 27 minutes after picking up two fouls early in the first half.
Hutchison did a lot of damage in the final minutes of the game after the Aggies pulled away by as many as six points, but Merrill did an admirable job of defending the 6-foot-7 NBA prospect when Utah State put together a game-changing run midway through the second half.
Merrill had on off night shooting the basketball (5 for 13 from the field, 2 of 7 from long range), but the former Bountiful Brave still managed to contribute some hard-nosed defense, three steals and three assists while playing all but two minutes of the game.
“(Merrill) didn’t guard (Hutchison) at all the first game, but he did a really good job tonight,” Duryea said. “I was actually trying to get us in zone a couple of times coming down the stretch, and Sam had no part of it. He was getting his teammates in man-to-man, which meant that he could stay on Hutchison. He wanted that matchup. That’s the kind of competitor he is.”
Merrill knocked down a key 3-pointer that gave the Aggies a 61-56 advantage with 2:06 to go, and McEwen also buried a vital, shot-clock-beating trey with a minute remaining to extend USU’s lead to six points. Facing the Broncos’ press down the stretch, Utah State also came up with a pair of back-breaking, breakaway slams by Brito and McEwen that helped close out the victory.
“We’ve always talk about attacking the press on the back end,” Duryea noted. “We have a couple of long looks there that we tried to get, and we always want to just be really aggressive.”
Utah State, which lost at Boise State 71-67 on Jan. 17, trailed by eight points in the first five minutes of the contest. But, during the subsequent timeout, Duryea said he told his team that they were happy they were down 12-4 because they had been up early during the game in Boise and still lost.
That proved prophetic as the Aggies never led in the first half and trailed 34-27 at halftime before making their move in the second half, eventually tying the game at 45-45 on a driving layup by Merrill with just under 13 minutes to go. Two possessions later, Merrill was frustrating Hutchison with his defense when teammate DeAngelo Isby came over to help, snagged a steal and ended up firing a pass on the run to McEwen that resulted in a slam dunk and USU’s first lead of the night.
Boise State head coach Leon Rice called a timeout as the Spectrum exploded, and Boise State was able to briefly regain the lead at 52-51 on a 3-pointer by Justinian Jessup a few minutes later. But that advantage was short-lived as the Aggies quickly countered with Merrill’s first 3-pointer of the game and a mid-range jumper by McEwen that forced another timeout by Rice with 4:15 left in the contest.
McEwen picked up fourth foul a few seconds later, forcing Duryea to take his star guard out of the game. But he returned about 90 seconds later to help lead the Aggies to their biggest victory of the season.
After shooting just 37 percent in the first half, the Aggies shot 58.6 percent as a team after halftime and went 9 for 25 from 3-point range for the game. The Broncos shot 46.3 percent from the floor and outrebounded USU 35 to 25, but committed 16 turnovers to the Aggies’ 10.
“They created a lot of turnovers, and we gave them some turnovers, but they had active hands and were slapping the ball,” Rice said of the Aggies. “They created a lot of opportunities there, and we helped them with that. We just didn’t defend them very well either. They shot 58 percent in the second half, and it’s tough to win on the road or anywhere if you’re giving up 58 percent.”