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Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal
Colorado State guard Kris Martin (30) has his shot blocked by Utah State center Neemias Queta (23) during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

LOGAN — Moments after Utah State center Neemias Queta stole an inbounds pass from under the Colorado State basket and dribbled it all the way up the court for a thundering slam dunk and an 11-2 Aggie lead just three minutes into Saturday night’s game, an ecstatic USU student proclaimed: “Man, I love basketball so much!”

The Aggies certainly put on a fan-pleasing performance against the rival Rams, leading Colorado State from start to finish on their way to an 87-72 victory.

But there might have been more to USU’s effort than just getting the crowd of 7,509 at the Spectrum fired up and enamored with basketball.

“Now our guys get a week off. It's perfect timing for us, the way we are right now,” USU head coach Craig Smith noted. “We dangled the carrot in front of our guys tonight and said we'd give them an extra day off if we won. So, we'll take it off, I guess."

" We came out from the start and had a really great start. We set the tone early on how the game was going to go. I think we played really hard as a team. We shared the ball and got great shots and a really great victory. "
Utah State's Brock Miller

The victory was the third in a row for Utah State (4-2 in the Mountain West, 14-5 overall), which sits in fourth place in the conference standings prior to its next game at New Mexico on Jan. 26.

Five different Aggies scored in double figures against Colorado State (2-3, 7-11), including Queta (18 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks), freshman guard Brock Miller (18 points, six 3-pointers), junior guard Sam Merrill (16 points, eight assists), junior guard Diogo Brito (12 points, five rebounds) and senior forward Quinn Taylor (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals).

Utah State shot 54.2 percent from the floor as a team, including going 12 of 25 from 3-point range, and outrebounded the Rams 39 to 24.

“We came out from the start and had a really great start,” Miller said. “We set the tone early on how the game was going to go. I think we played really hard as a team. We shared the ball and got great shots and a really great victory."

The game featured a clash between two former colleagues. Both first-year head coaches at their respective institutions, Smith and CSU coach Niko Medved served as assistant coaches together for five seasons under former Rams head coach Tim Miles.

Medved, who was hired to replace former USU head coach Larry Eustachy, got off to a rough start, but had guided the Rams to back-to-back victories before Saturday’s loss in the Spectrum.

“We knew they'd be ready to play and be prepared,” Medved said of the Aggies. “They came out the more physical team. They were aggressive early, and it took us awhile to wake up and get going.

“I told our guys that that's a good team. They're a top-of-the-conference kind of team, playing on their home court in a really good environment.”

Reigning Mountain West Player of the Week Nico Carvacho totaled 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Rams, but with the Aggies regularly double-teaming him in the post, the junior center had a relatively quiet game and only took eight shots.

Senior guard J.D. Paige led the Rams with 17 points, while Hyron Edwards (14 points), Adam Thistlewood (12 points) and Kris Martin (10 points) also scored in double figures.

Colorado State did shoot 45.1 percent as a team — the second-best shooting performance by a visiting team in the Spectrum this season — but it still wasn’t enough to catch the Aggies, who led by as many as 16 points in the first half and 18 in the second half.

“They played good basketball,” Smith said of the Rams. “They shot 45 percent, which is about as high as a team has shot (against us) in a long time. This team is constantly reinventing itself, and we're finding different ways to win.

“I thought overall, we defended really well. They got us on a few things. We knew with the week they had off there would be some new looks they would have, and they capitalized on some of those.”

After starting the same lineup in the first 18 games of the season, Smith said he has liked the way sophomore point guard Abel Porter has been playing lately and plugged the former Davis High star into the starting lineup while bumping sophomore Crew Ainge to the bench.

The move seemed to pay dividends as, following rough starts at Wyoming and San Jose State, the Aggies pulled away early against the Rams. Three-pointers by Merrill and Miller helped spark a 14-2 burst in the first four minutes and 21 seconds, but it was the steal and dunk by Queta that really seemed to fire up the team and the home crowd and the 6-foot-11 center kept after it the entire game on both ends of the court.

“Neemias was an animal, quite frankly, today, protecting the rim,” Smith said. “He really anchored us. I thought he was really, really good, especially early on. You could see the energy.”

The Aggies, who led 44-35 at halftime, maintained at least a double-digit lead throughout the second half after scoring the first four points after intermission. But the Rams got back to within 10 points several times, only to be thwarted by big plays by the Aggies late in the shot clock.

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A dunk by Queta and a reverse layup by Porter in the final minutes helped keep the visitors at bay, while Brito scored on two plays in just over a minute as the clock expired, first on a driving layup and the second on a 3-pointer that stretched USU’s lead to a comfortable 15 points.

“I thought a really key stat was in the last five minutes. We had four possessions where we literally scored at the end of the clock,” Smith noted. “To be able to finish while milking the clock was huge."