LAS VEGAS – Utah State’s long-shot dream of winning its first conference tournament in seven years and advancing to the NCAA Tournament, ended Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center as New Mexico rolled to a 83-67 victory over the Aggies in the Mountain West Conference semifinals.
The Aggies were befuddled all night by the Lobos’ constant pressure defense and wilted during the last nine minutes of the first half when they played their worst basketball of the season according to their coach.
“Probably the worst stretch of basketball we’ve played all year,” said USU coach Tim Duryea. “They put a lot of pressure on you and we’re a pretty good offensive team in the halfcourt. But they did a good job of not letting us execute. We had that seven- or eight-minute stretch where we probably played as badly as we could play We just could not overcome that stretch.”
While the Lobos improved to 19-14 in advancing to Saturday afternoon’s finals against San Diego State, the Aggies dropped to 17-17 for the season. According to Duryea, the Aggies’ season may not be over as they’ve been “in discussions” with a couple of postseason tournaments, most likely the CBI or CIT.
“We have had a couple of tournaments reach out to us,” Duryea said. “We have a locker room full of guys who would like to keep playing, so hopefully one of those will work out.”
The Aggies finished with 14 turnovers for the night although it felt like a lot more. The constant pressure by the Lobos caused the Aggies to get out of rhythm and it affected their offense.
“They play that pressure defense and we just got sped up,” said Sam Merrill, who led the Aggies with 17 points. “That’s exactly what they want you to do and what you can’t do. Once you have a couple of turnovers and get sped up it all turns mental. We probably had four or five turnovers that had nothing to do with their pressure and we were so sped up and flustered mentally, that we just fell apart in that stretch.”
Merrill’s backcourt mate, Koby McEwen agreed, saying, “We were playing a little timid to start and after we broke their press, we weren’t attacking. They were the aggressor tonight, we weren’t and we reacted -- they threw the first punch.”
The Aggies actually looked good at the beginning of the game, taking leads of 20-12 and 22-17. But that’s when they fell apart amid the Lobos pressure as New Mexico went on a 19-0 run late in the first half and took a 37-25 lead into halftime on a 20-3 run.
Having come back to win their first two games after being down by double digits, the Aggies still had hope in the second half. But the Lobos pretty much quashed those hopes with an 8-0 run out of the gates and stretched the lead to 23 at 53-30.
USU chipped away at the lead and got within nine points with just under two minutes to play, but it was too little, too late and the Lobos held on.
Besides Merrill’s 17 points, McEwen scored 16 points and Julion Pearre had 13. New Mexico was led by Troy Simons with 17 points and Sam Logwood and Joe Furstinger with 16 points apiece.
New Mexico had defeated Wyoming 85-75 in the late game Thursday so the Aggies supposedly had a slight advantage of playing a couple of hours earlier and being fresher. But it was the Lobos who seemed to have all the energy as they kept the full-court pressure on the Aggies all night long.
In the other semifinal game Friday, No. 5 seed San Diego throttled No. 1 seed Nevada 90-73. The Aztecs jumped out to a 55-25 first-half lead on 62 percent shooting and coasted from there. SDSU had five players in double figures led by Devin Watson with 20.
GAME NOTES: In both of their tournament wins, the Aggies had overcome big first-half deficits to come out on top. They trailed by 15 early against Colorado State only to come back and win 76-65 and trailed by 13 late in the first half against Boise State before winning 78-75 behind Merrill’s 28 points . . . The Aggies beat the Lobos at home 89-80 on Jan. 30, but lost two weeks later at the Pit in Albuquerque 78-63. The Lobos haven’t lost since, reeling off seven straight victories in all . . . That was the start of a four-game skid for the Aggies before they ran off three straight victories . . . Utah State came into the game leading the overall series with New Mexico 22-9 . . . USU is now 5-5 in MWC tournament games . . . Last time Utah State made it to a conference championship game was in 2011 when it beat Boise State in the finals of the WAC Tournament. That was also USU’s last NCAA tournament appearance . . . New Mexico was eliminated in its first game each of the past three seasons at the MWC tourney. The three previous seasons, 2012-14, the Lobos won the MWC tournament.