LOGAN — Sunday is the 25th anniversary of the first time Utah State ever beat mighty UNLV in basketball after starting off 0-25 against the Rebels.
While that hard-fought, 82-81 victory at the Spectrum on Feb. 3, 1994, took overtime for Larry Eustachy’s team, the current version of the Aggies celebrated that milestone win Saturday afternoon by cruising to a relatively easy 82-65 rout of UNLV.
“That’s a great win for our program,” USU head coach Craig Smith declared. “They have a good team. They’re very young, they’re athletic and can do a lot of things to you.
“You think of UNLV, and they have the fifth-most wins in the history of Division I basketball. Any time you look online or think of UNLV, you think of really good basketball. Great tradition and all that stuff. It’s a marquee win for us.”
Tied for second in the conference with Fresno State coming into Saturday’s game, Utah State (17-5 overall, 7-2 in the Mountain West) won its sixth straight game this season with its third straight win over the Rebels (11-10, 5-4). The Aggies, who are 8-7 against UNLV since losing their first 25 games of the series, have now matched their win total from last season a mere 22 games into Smith’s first season as head coach.
“I thought we had an amazing night from start to finish,” USU guard Diogo Brito said. “We came out strong, had a good run. Eventually we kind of slacked, but we were able to get another run toward the end. We got that separation and never looked back.”
Junior guard Sam Merrill led the way for the Aggies once again, totaling a game-high 20 points while dishing out five assists without a turnover, while Brito came off the bench to play 26 minutes and contributed 15 points, three 3-pointers, five rebounds and three assists.
The Aggies also got 10 points and 16 rebounds from Neemias Queta, although the freshman center did struggle to finish around the basket (3 for 11) and knock down free throws (4 for 9). But senior forward Quinn Taylor (nine points, six rebounds, four assists) and sophomore guard Abel Porter (nine points, three assists) helped keep the Rebels at bay.
Utah State shot just over 49 percent for the game, went 10 of 23 from 3-point range and outrebounded the Rebels 44 to 32. The Aggies also pulled down 12 offensive rebounds to nine for UNLV, which came into the rare afternoon game at the Spectrum second in the country in offensive rebounds per game at 15.05.
“Craig has done a phenomenal job in a short amount of time with his team,” UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies said. “He’s got some experience, but he’s got the classes layered in a good way. That’s good for the conference. They’re going to be a good team from this year on out.”
The loss was third in a row for UNLV, which opened conference play with five wins in its first six games. Forward Joel Ntambwe led the visitors with 18 points, and Kris Clyburn (14 points, nine rebounds) and Amauri Hardy (14 points) both had solid games, but the Rebels only shot 36.8 percent from the field for the game and totaled just five fast-break points.
“I thought it was a great game defensively,” Merrill said. “Our keys were to get back in transition defense and keep them off the offensive boards. I don’t know how many they scored in transition, but it wasn’t a lot, and they only had nine offensive rebounds.
“We did a great job there and did a great job defensively all game. They ended up shooting 37 percent, which is really good. Offensively, we’re continuing to play well, but on the defensive end is where we’re going to win the majority of our games and we did that tonight.”
After scoring the first basket of the game, the Rebels surrendered eight straight points to the Aggies and never really threatened to take another lead. A 3-point play by Merrill staked USU to a 19-7 advantage just over seven minutes into the contest, and following a brief lull, Merrill and Brito helped kickstart a run late in the first half that stretched the Aggies’ lead to 20 points at halftime.1 comment on this story
The two teams jostled back and forth early in the second half, but UNLV could only manage to get back within as few as 16 points before the Aggies’ offense got clicking again. An 11-0 spurt helped build a 71-43 lead with nine minutes remaining, and then a wild 3-pointer by Merrill with the shot clock running down five minutes later all but finished the job with the home team up 80-54.
Against USU’s bench, the Rebels, who were averaging nearly 79 points a game in conference play, finished strong with eight straight points from Ntambwe. But by that time, the Aggies’ had already secured their sixth straight victory — the longest by a USU team in conference play since the program joined the Mountain West prior to the 2013-14 season.