You’ve got to go into the tournament if you can with a little momentum, and we did the best we could tonight in terms of helping ourselves take a little easier path, some people would say. —Utah State coach Tim Duryea
LOGAN — Thanks to a turnaround victory over Nevada-Las Vegas Saturday night, the Aggies have a little momentum heading into Las Vegas.
Utah State’s 79-67 win at the Spectrum ended the Aggies’ four-game losing streak and solidified their position as the No. 7 seed at next week’s Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Aggies (15-16 overall, 8-10 in the Mountain West) will play No. 10 seed Colorado State (11-20, 4-14) at 2:30 p.m. (MT) Wednesday.
“You’ve got to go into the tournament if you can with a little momentum, and we did the best we could tonight in terms of helping ourselves take a little easier path, some people would say,” USU head coach Tim Duryea said. “There are no easy paths, but the way that Nevada is playing, if you can stay opposite them as long as you can, you’ve got to try and do that.
“And, after that, you better play well no matter who you got.”
Saturday’s loss was the fifth in a row for the Rebels (19-12, 8-10), who will be the No. 8 seed in next week’s tourney on their home floor.
The Aggies, who also won at UNLV, 85-78, on Jan. 6, swept the Rebels for the first time thanks to a combined 33 points from the sophomore backcourt of Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill.
While Merrill put up 15 points and three 3-pointers despite being hampered by foul trouble, McEwen finished with 18 points and four 3-pointers even though he was slowed by an upper-leg injury that kept him off of the court for eight crucial minutes in the second half.
“It’s a little unknown at this point,” Duryea said of McEwen’s injury. “He’s got something, and he’s with the doctors right now. So I don’t know for sure where that stands, but that’s a little worrisome.”
Playing on Senior Night, Utah State’s only two seniors also played key roles in the victory over the Rebels. Forward Alex Dargenton scored 12 points and dished out a career-high five assists in just 23 minutes of playing time, while guard Julion Pearre knocked down a pair of 3-pointers after going 4 for 18 from long range during an injury-plagued senior season.
“That felt good,” Pearre said of his treys. “I haven’t had too many of those this year, so having those drop felt really good.”
Although UNLV shot 53.1 percent from the field as a team and had four players score in double figures, the Aggies shot an even 50 percent from the floor and went 11 for 27 from 3-point range. Utah State also totaled a season-high 23 assists against 11 turnovers, and played the longer and more athletic Rebels even on the boards, 29 to 29.
“It an overall team win,” Duryea said. “Everyone who played scored, and we got a lot of contributions from the support cast, which for this team is a huge key. That’s what we got last time in Vegas when we played them, and we got that again tonight.”
The first half of the game was close for the first 15 minutes. But with the Aggies clinging to a 25-24 lead with under five minutes to go, Utah State suddenly put together a big run, even with Merrill on the bench with two fouls.
Treys by McEwen and Pearre fired up the home crowd of 5,853 — short on students due to the start of the spring break — and the Aggies connected on their last five field-goal attempts before halftime. A 3-pointer by freshman forward Daron Henson at the buzzer finished off a 17-6 spurt that left Utah State up 42-30 at intermission.
But after Dargenton scored the first basket of the second half, things quickly unraveled for the Aggies. Less than three minutes in, McEwen appeared to re-injure his right quadriceps or groin that he originally hurt driving to the basket in the first half, and the sophomore guard ended up going up the tunnel with USU’s trainer.
Less than a minute later, Merrill picked up his third foul, and UNLV took advantage with USU’s two leading scorers off the court, closing to within two points on two occasions. But after the Rebels got to within 48-46, Duryea called a timeout and the Aggies were suddenly able to stop UNLV’s run at 16-4.
Merrill soon returned to the floor, and back-to-back baskets by DeAngelo Isby and Dwayne Brown Jr. finally got the USU offense rolling again. After receiving treatment on his leg, McEwen returned with 9:30 to go and the Aggies ended up going on a 10-0 run capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Pearre and McEwen to force a UNLV timeout at 5:59 trailing 72-53.
“I was happy with our guys tonight,” Duryea said. “We got a timeout, we grabbed a hold of it, got a couple of key baskets and got some stops and turned the ball back the other way. The game is not going to go your way for 40 minutes, not at this level. There’s going to be runs back and forth, we all know that.
“A lot of times it’s how you respond when the other team throws a counter punch at you, whether you can regroup and communicate and solves the issues and get it going back the other way. And that was a good thing to see tonight.”
The Rebels put together a quick spurt that closed the gap to 11 points with three minutes remaining, but McEwen helped slow the late charge by getting a 3-pointer to fall after the ball spun all the way around the rim and then went up in the air as high as the backboard before slipping back through the basket.
“It felt really good, especially for us seniors, me and (Pearre), to go out with a win and end our career at home at Utah State,” Dargenton declared. “It was a great feeling for us.”