LOGAN — As if the battle between the top two teams in the Mountain West Conference Saturday night wasn’t brutal enough on the court, surviving the huge celebration following Utah State’s 81-76 victory over No. 12 Nevada was also a huge challenge.
For both teams.
“I don’t know what the word is for the feeling of passing out, but I was very close,” said USU guard Diogo Brito, a native of Portugal. “There was no way for me to breathe. I was trying to jump and just get as much fresh air as I could, but it was very hard.
“But we were expecting it if we won, and our student section is magical. It’s magical.”
But while Utah State (24-6, 14-3) ultimately enjoyed the storming of the court at the Spectrum following the Aggies’ first victory over a ranked team in 12 years, the Nevada Wolf Pack (26-3, 13-3) certainly did not.
Because of the chaos on the floor, head coach Eric Musselman and his team went up the tunnel traditionally used by the home team rather than the visitors’ tunnel. And while on the way to the locker room, Nevada guard Jordan Caroline, upset with some unpleasant interactions with USU fans on the floor, apparently punched a metal-and-glass box containing a fire extinguisher.
Musselman declined to speak to the media afterwards, while USU head coach Craig Smith was far from the incident, inasmuch as he was being carried around the court by Utah State’s student body as, rather ironically, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was being played over the loud speakers.
“I didn’t have a choice. They just picked me up and threw me up on the shoulders so I was kind of stuck,” Smith declared. “But it was kind of cool. That was the first time ... besides a few wedding dances, but we won’t go there.”
The victory, which was witnessed by legendary head coach Stew Morrill, who was seated on press row, over the two-time defending Mountain West champs lifted the Aggies into first place in the conference standings with one regular season game to go.
Utah State can secure at least a share of the MW title with a win at Colorado State Tuesday night, while Nevada finishes up with a road game at Air Force and a home contest against San Diego State. An Aggie victory over the Rams and another loss by Nevada would give Utah State the championship, as well as the No. 1 seed.
But regardless, upending the 12th-ranked Pack greatly helps the Aggies’ shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I just can't put it into words right now how huge of a win this was for our program against a tremendous team in Nevada,” Smith said. “It was a tough, emotional game.”
Saturday’s showdown at the sold-out Spectrum — the crowd of 10,387 was the seventh-largest in school history — featured a battle between arguably the top two candidates for Mountain West Player of the Year. And neither USU guard Sam Merrill nor Nevada forward Caleb Martin, the two players never to leave the floor, disappointed.
Merrill scored a game-high 29 points, going 8 for 19 from the field, 4 for 7 from 3-point range and 9 of 10 from the free-throw line, while Martin finished 6 of 19 from the floor, 2 for 10 from long range and 9 of 14 from the free-throw line on his way to a team-high 23 points.
“It was a very energetic atmosphere. The crowd was unbelievable,” Merrill said. “We couldn't have done that without them. They helped more than people realized. We're so grateful for them. Coach preached all week in both games that we had to be the toughest team. Some things didn't go our way. ... But we found a way to stick together with all the guys fouling out and such. We found a way to win the game.”
While Merrill and Martin both played a full 40 minutes, Saturday’s game was a battle of attrition: the Aggies had three players foul out, the Wolf Pack four.
But despite losing starting senior forward Quinn Taylor (two points, four rebounds, four blocks in 18 minutes), freshman forward Neemias Queta (13 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes) and sophomore point guard Abel Porter (three points, four assists in 28 minutes), the Aggies still gutted out the victory thanks to their bench.
The play of Brito (15 points, eight rebounds), freshman forward Justin Bean (nine points, six rebounds) and senior forward Dwayne Brown Jr. (five points in 13 minutes) helped keep Utah State out in front down the stretch as the Wolf Pack shrunk a 13-point deficit down to as few as two points in the final moments of the game.
"It was a very physical game,” Brito said. “The beginning of the game, both teams seemed kind of nervous and just got some cheap fouls on both ends. Eventually, we fed off our crowd because they were huge tonight.36 comments on this story
"The second half, we got in a little bit of foul trouble, but the fact that we were able to stay in the game and keep the lead was a really good sign of our toughness. The overall team effort that guys had to do whatever they needed to do even though they were not playing in their usual position, that was huge for us. Fortunately, we came out with the win."
Utah State, which lost by 25 points at Nevada on Jan. 2, held the Pack to just 36.4 percent shooting for the game, including a 6 for 23 effort from 3-point range. The Wolf Pack ended up barely outrebounding the Aggies by a 43 to 42 margin, and went 22 for 34 from the free-throw line.
The Aggies, who have won six straight games, connected on 47.1 percent of their field goal attempts, but were just 5 of 17 from beyond the arc while dropping in 28 of 37 free throws.