Winning a quarterfinal game is great, it’s a step in the process, but it’s not the end goal. The goal for us is to win the tournament. —Utah State head coach Tim Duryea
LAS VEGAS — For the first time ever, the Utah State basketball team is headed to the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament after the Aggies knocked off favored Boise State 78-75 Thursday night at Thomas & Mack Center.
The Aggies (17-16) came back from another slow start — they trailed by as many as 13 in the first half against the league’s No. 2 seed — to advance to Friday’s semis where they’ll take on New Mexico at 9:30 p.m. MT.
The Aggies, who had come from behind to beat Colorado State in the first round, got a terrific performance from Sam Merrill, a sophomore guard from Bountiful, who scored a game-high 28 points with 7 of 10 from 3-point range. Merrill hit the biggest bucket of the game, a 3-pointer from out front with 32 seconds left to give the Aggies a four-point lead.
“We had the big possession at the end and there was no doubt where we were going,” said USU coach Tim Duryea. “We were going to get the ball in his hands.”
Merrill came off a screen near the top of the key and fired up the three that swished and gave the Aggies their largest lead of the game.
“That last shot I’d taken it a million times and made it quite a few times,” said Merrill. “We hadn’t run (the play) yet during the game, so I had a feeling it would be open and came up and shot it confidently.”
There was still plenty of drama after Merrill’s shot as Zach Haney cut the lead to two with a follow-up basket with 24 seconds left. Then on the inbounds, Merrill threw it away, only to make a steal on the Broncos inbounds, before the ball ended up in two players hands for a jump ball, giving Boise State possession.
The Broncos set up a play for their best player Chandler Hutchison, who drove down the lane but missed a 12-footer. Koby McEwen corralled the rebound and was fouled but he only made one of two with 7.6 seconds left.
Boise had one last chance, but Hutchison’s 3-point try bounced away, giving the Aggies an unexpected victory.
The Broncos have been on the NCAA bubble for much of the season, but are obviously out now with a 23-8 record that will likely land them in the NIT.
They came out smoking by hitting their first six shots, including four 3-pointers to take a 16-7 lead and stretched it to 36-23 before the Aggies closed within eight at the half as Merrill hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
“Sam made a big 3 before half and gave us a little bit of momentum going into the locker room,” said Duryea.
Boise still led by 10 at 51-41 when Merrill went on his own scoring spree after a basket by Diogo with seven points in less than a minute as the Aggies pulled within one.
From there the game was tight the rest of the way and the game was tied at 73 after a McEwen 3-pointer with 1:38 left. Then came Merrill’s big 3-pointer after Dwayne Brown made one of two free throws.
Besides Merrill’s 28 points, McEwen added 14 points and eight rebounds and Brown chipped in 10.
Boise was led by guard Lexus Williams, the team’s fourth-leading scorer, who scored a season-high 24 points. Hutchison, who had to sit out 13 minutes of the first half because of two fouls, scored 14 and Chris Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup each had 11.
The Aggies had the T&M crowd on their side as the game came down to the wire, as the New Mexico and Wyoming fans, waiting for their game after the USU-BSU contest, obviously wanted to get rid of the higher-seeded Broncos.
McEwen said the Aggie players noticed the fans on their side and though he appreciated it, also acted a little offended.
“We knew why they were doing that,” he said. “But they don’t want to see us.”
The Aggies say they’re not content just to get past the quarterfinals.
“This is the farthest we’ve been in our five years in the league, it’s been a grind for us,” said Duryea. “Winning a quarterfinal game is great, it’s a step in the process, but it’s not the end goal. The goal for us is to win the tournament.”
If the Aggies win Friday, they’ll play in the MWC finals Saturday at 4 p.m. MT.