LAS VEGAS — Utah State hadn’t played like this all season. The Aggies were throwing the ball all over the gym, piling up turnovers at a record pace — “We had 24, but it felt like 35 or 40,” said Aggies star Sam Merrill. It looked like the Aggies might be making an early exit from the Mountain West Conference tournament after tying for the MWC regular-season title.
Finally, the Aggies settled down and over the final three minutes showed their poise with a 15-5 run to pull out a 91-83 victory over New Mexico Thursday night in the Mountain West Conference quarterfinals at the Thomas & Mack Center.
With the win, the Aggies advance to the MWC semifinals for the second straight year for a 9:30 p.m. MT game against the winner of Thursday’s late game between Fresno State and Air Force. The Bulldogs led 43-26 at halftime.
“We found a way to win,” said USU coach Craig Smith. “New Mexico was really good tonight, but when things were not going great and looked a little bleak, our guys showed resolve. I can’t give our guys enough credit.”
Merrill, who was named MWC player of the year earlier in the week, was held down pretty well by the Lobo defense much of the game, but he finished with 23 points and nine assists, including 11 of 12 from the free-throw line.
The game may have been decided from the free-throw line, where the Aggies sank 35 of 45 free throws, compared to 17 of 21 for the Lobos. The Aggies kept attacking the basket all night to earn their free throws. Neemias Queta made 6 of 11 from the line on his way to 16 points, while freshman Justin Bean sank 8 of 10 from the line.
Bean, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman, had a career night finishing with 14 points and 15 rebounds and came with clutch free throws down the stretch.
New Mexico came in as the No. 7 seed after going 7-11 in MWC play, including two losses to USU during the regular season. But they weren’t a terrible team, having beaten Nevada by 27 points at home this season, and as usual had the largest fan base among MWC teams.
The Lobos led throughout much of the first half before the teams went into the locker room tied at 39. The pressing Lobo defense played havoc with the USU offense, creating 15 turnovers in the first half alone. Merrill got in foul trouble, playing much of the first half with three fouls before foolishly picking up No. 4 with 54 seconds left.
The Lobos threatened to pull away in the second half, building up an eight-point lead when a technical foul on New Mexico coach Paul Weir changed the momentum.
The second-year coach was protesting a call under the opposite basket and came out several feet on the floor and was quickly assessed a technical. The Lobos were leading 52-44 at the time and had the large contingent of New Mexico fans rocking. But the Aggies got two free throws and a basket by Diogo Brito and within three minutes the score was tied 57-57 at the 11:41 mark.
“How much it impacted the game, I don’t know,” Weir said later. “Those plays down the stretch were much more pivotal.”
With 3:13 left, USU’s Abel Porter made a 3-point play after a drive to the basket to put the Aggies up for good at 79-78. A minute later Brito sank a huge 3-pointer from the right corner to put the Aggies up by four.
“That was a big dagger, most definitely,” Smith said.
Brito had had a rough first half, getting five turnovers and no points, but finished with 14 second-half points and no more turnovers.
In the final two minutes, the Aggies made seven of eight free throws to put the game away.
The Aggies have already pretty much locked up an NCAA bid based on their 26-6 record, which includes 15 wins in their last 16 games. The Aggies are listed around a No. 9 seed in various brackets. But the Aggies aren’t taking any chances and want to win the tournament.
“We have one goal this weekend and we’re one step closer to winning the tournament,” said Merrill.11 comments on this story
USU NOTES: In earlier games at the MWC tournament Thursday, No. 1 seed Nevada came back from a halftime deficit to beat Boise State 77-69, while San Diego State knocked off UNLV 63-55 . . . Earlier this season, the Aggies swept the series with the Lobos, winning 68-66 in Albuquerque and 71-55 in Logan . . . USU won the rebound battle 46 to 28 and shot 53.2 percent from the field . . . This marks the second straight year the Aggies have made it to the MWC semifinals. Last year they lost to New Mexico 83-68.