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Eli Lucero/Herald Journal, The Herald Journal
Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) passes the ball as Air Force guard Caleb Morris (0) defends during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

LOGAN — While the U.S. Air Force Academy is operating during the latest government shutdown, the Aggies made certain the Falcons still remained grounded Saturday night at the Spectrum.

Utah State led start to finish on its way to its first conference victory of the season, 79-62.

“I thought we had a really good game,” USU freshman center Neemis Queta declared. “We played really good defense on them. When we drop a team below 40 percent shooting, we have a really good chance of winning. We played really good on the offensive end, too, so it was a good win for us.”

" I thought we really got back to our brand of basketball — really moving, passing, cutting. "
USU head coach Craig Smith

Junior guard Sam Merrill led the way for the Aggies (1-1 in the Mountain West, 11-4 overall), putting up a game-high 18 points while also dishing out a career-best 12 assists in 39 minutes. As a team, Utah State totaled 25 assists on 29 field goals.

“I thought we really got back to our brand of basketball — really moving, passing, cutting,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “I thought we had a vast array of scoring and had 25 assists in the game. Sam had a double-double with 12 assists. It’s hard to get 12 assists, no matter where you’re at.”

Senior forward Quinn Taylor (16 points, six rebounds) and Queta (13 points, 10 rebounds) went a combined 12 for 13 from the field for the Aggies, while freshman guard Brock Miller sank five 3-pointers on his way to 15 points.

Utah State shot 56 percent from the floor in both halves and finished 11 for 23 from 3-point range to get back on track after a 72-49 humbling at sixth-ranked Nevada Wednesday night.

“They’re a very good team. We just didn’t do as good of a job defensively as we have been,” Air Force head coach Dave Pilpovich said of the Aggies. “You have to give them credit, especially here. They haven’t lost here this year, and they play with a lot of confidence. Luckily we’ll get them back at our place.”

Air Force (0-2, 5-9) got 16 points from sophomore guard Keaton Van Soelen and 14 points from junior guard Lavelle Scottie, but the Falcons shot just 39.3 percent from the field and were outrebounded by a 39-19 margin.

In fact, USU freshman forward Justin Bean outboarded Air Force by himself in the first half, pulling down seven boards in just 10 minutes to six for the Falcons for the entire half.

“That’s not crazy to us,” Merrill said of Bean’s energetic performance off the bench. “We practice with him. He is a monster on the glass, and he’s showed it the last couple of games. He’s done a really good job for us.”

Utah State opened the game with a point-blank score by Queta and a 3-pointer by Miller, and the hosts held the lead the remainder of the contest. A 10-3 run midway through the first half increased USU’s advantage to 19-10, and two key 3-pointers by Dwayne Brown Jr. three minutes apart helped stall out a couple of brief runs by the Falcons.

The Aggies ended up leading by as many as 18 points in the first half and took a 44-28 advantage into halftime. But, after a 3-pointer by Miller 32 seconds into the second half, the Falcons suddenly started to find their range from the perimeter.

After going just 2 for 10 from 3-point range in the first half, Air Force suddenly got very comfortable from deep, burying eight 3-pointers in just over eight minutes. The Falcons’ first 24 points of the second half came via treys, trimming Utah State’s lead down to nine points.

“They were only averaging six made threes per game, so obviously our game plan was to keep them out of the paint and force them to hit threes,” Merrill said. “So, that was pretty crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that, the way they shot it at the start of the second half.”

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But after getting to within 61-52, the Falcons suddenly went cold from long range again, while Aggies the quickly countered with a tip-in and a free throw from Queta and another 3-pointer from Miller to go back up by 15 points. Air Force never really threatened again as Utah State increased its all-time home record against the Falcons to 11-0.

“It’s a tough game to have coming off of that loss to Nevada,” Merrill said. “Obviously against Air Force you have to be really locked in, and there’s a lot of stuff that you have to learn how to guard in a short time span. But I thought we did a really good job defensively, and got back to who we are a little bit offensively. We moved the ball really well, had a lot of assists and made shots.”