LOGAN — Utah State’s final basket of the night seemed only appropriate.
After leading scorer Sam Merrill missed his 15th shot in 18 attempts, redshirt freshman Justin Bean flew in for a rebound and a slam dunk that capped off Utah State’s hard-fought 71-55 victory over New Mexico Wednesday night at the Spectrum.
“Sam should have got an assist for that one; I think that was awesome,” Bean said with a smile. “I was just in the right spot, and instinct told me to try and crash the boards.”
Already an Aggie fan favorite, Wednesday was simply the biggest night of Bean’s brief career, in which he came off the bench to contribute eight points, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks in 21 minutes.
“I got a haircut today, so maybe I was a bit lighter on my feet today,” Bean joked after the game.
Bean’s energy and athleticism helped Utah State (11-3 in the Mountain West, 21-6 overall) overcome one of the Aggies' worst offensive performances of the season.
But despite shooting just 37.1 percent as a team, Utah State managed to battle their way past the Lobos (5-9, 11-15) thanks to the play of Bean, freshman center Neemias Queta (23 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks) and junior guard Diogo Brito (13 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals).
“Our bench was really good tonight,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “Obviously, Justin Bean has the best game of his career. He got eight points and five rebounds, but it was more than that. His energy, and tenacious; it just seemed like he was everywhere.
“And Diogo has been playing very good basketball of late, and he was everywhere tipping and deflecting. He’s been such a consistent performer, and just keeps getting better.”
Merrill ended up with 13 points, but the junior guard went 3 for 18 from the floor, 3 for 11 from 3-point range and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. His starting backcourt mate, Brock Miller, also struggled mightily, knocking down just 1 of 11 field-goal attempts.
“He looked a little frustrated tonight, and you don’t see that very often with him,” Smith said of Merrill. “He had some really clean looks, and you’re always surprised when he misses those shots. But Sam’s a two-way player and a great competitor, and he’s always willing to take on the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player.”
New Mexico was led by 20 points from sophomore guard Anthony Mathis, but he was the only Lobo to finish in double figures as the visitors ended up shooting an even 40 percent from the floor and going 7 of 23 from 3-point range.
Utah State scored the first three points and the final three points of the first half, but in between, it was a hard-fought battle with the Lobos.
New Mexico played an extended match-up zone throughout the half, basically daring the Aggies to shoot mid-range jumpers, and Utah State wasn’t up to the challenge. Queta had success down low, scoring 15 points and pulling down eight rebounds in 18 minutes, but USU’s shooters struggled and the home team trailed by as many as nine points.
Merrill scored his first points on a 3-pointer with 7:41 left in the first half, and Miller followed with his one and only basket of the half to cap an 8-0 Aggie run that regained a 21-20 lead for Utah State. The two teams went back and forth the rest of the half, until a 3-pointer by Merrill with three seconds left broke a tie and gave Utah State a 35-32 at intermission despite shooting just 34 percent as a team.
In the second half, the Aggies scored first on a play that suggested that things might start going their way. A bad pass from Merrill to Queta in the paint ended up going off the center’s leg and into the hands of Taylor, who went up for the basket.
Utah State also benefitted a couple of minutes later when after scoring down low, New Mexico’s Corey Manigault ran over Queta, prompting a technical foul call. Merrill hit both shots from the line, helping the Aggies slowly pull away.
The hustle play of Bean and Brito fired up their teammates and the crowd as shots continued not to fall for the hosts, who knocked down just 7 of 27 3-point attempts on the night.
“I think we just came out and out-toughed them in the second half,” Brito said. “We just played hard and got a lot of steals and a lot of stops. And all of that defensive effort just translated into easy baskets.”
Sophomore guard Abel Porter checked back into the game at 9:20, and after a steal by Merrill, ended up getting an early break pass from Brito in the left corner and drained the 3-pointer for a 52-41 lead that prompted New Mexico coach Paul Weir to call a timeout as the Spectrum exploded with delight.
A deep 3-pointer from Mathis got the Lobos back to within seven points with just over four minutes remaining, but the Aggies quickly responded with Queta finding Bean right under the basket for an easy score. And then Bean and his teammates got their hands on two straight New Mexico possessions, leading to a breakaway score by Brito and a massive slam by Queta.12 comments on this story
Up 62-49 with 3:02 remaining, the Aggies then closed their 21st victory of the season with little trouble.
“We really competed tonight,” Bean declared. “Overall, you could just tell that the energy was there, especially in the second half. We made a really good run in those last 10 minutes, and it was electrifying. The fans really showed up tonight.”
Thanks to a loss by Fresno State Wednesday, Utah State is now in sole possession of second place in the Mountain West Conference behind first-place Nevada, which was upset by San Diego State.