LAS VEGAS — After struggling in its first game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament the night before, the Utah State basketball team put it all together in Friday’s semifinals, taking a convincing 85-60 victory over Fresno State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Aggies, who improved to 27-6 on the season, were sharp from the start and dominated in every way shooting 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range, out-rebounding the Bulldogs 43-29 and playing relatively error-free with just nine turnovers.
The Ags will play San Diego State in Saturday’s championship game at 4 p.m. MT after the Aztecs knocked off No. 1 seed Nevada 65-56 earlier Friday night. The game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.
“We played a great game tonight against a very good team, on both ends of the floor,” said USU coach Craig Smith. “We played well on offense, but I thought we were better defensively, to hold team like that to just 5 of 26 from the three.”
Thanks to a late 10-0 run, the Bulldogs improved to 40 percent shooting for the night, but their 19.2 percentage from 3-point range was well below their season average of 39 percent.
Sam Merrill, who was named MWC Player of the Year earlier in the week, led the Aggies with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting while Diogo Brito scored 20 points off the bench. Abel Porter scored 11 points, while Brock Miller added 10 points and Neemias Queta had 10 points and 13 rebounds.
The Aggies came into the game, having won 15 of their last 16 games and already a lock for an NCAA Tournament berth according to most experts.
They were taking on a Fresno team that they had played to a pair of one-point games during the regular season, winning one and losing one. The Bulldogs had bulldozed Air Force 76-50 in the late quarterfinal game to earn a rematch with the Aggies, who knocked off New Mexico 91-83 in a hard-fought game.
However, the Aggies took control from the start, rolling to a 50-27 halftime lead and not letting up in the second half when they led by as many as 35 points.
Unlike the night before against New Mexico, the Aggies got off to a quick start as Merrill hit a 3-pointer off a set play 15 seconds into the game and followed with a floater in the lane. The Aggies led 9-2 early and stretched it to 14-6 after Merrill made a nifty drive to the basket and followed it up with a steal and two points.
Brito came in and scored eight points in a four-minute stretch to extend the Aggie lead to 31-17 at the 8:10 mark. Miller sank back-to-back baskets to extend the USU lead to 18 and then the Aggies closed the half on a 6-0 run with Brito and Merrill sinking 3-pointers, the latter coming just before the buzzer.
For the half, the Aggies shot 52.8 percent from the field, compared to 35.5 for Fresno and outboarded their opponent 25-14.
Fresno State coach Justin Hutson called it a “buzzsaw in the first half” and said his team didn’t play anything like it did in the regular-season meetings when both games were decided by one point. He was particularly disappointed in his team’s rebounding, saying “we didn’t box out” and “it steamrolled from there.”
In the second half, the Aggies increased the lead to 28 on a Miller 3-pointer with 14:55 left and cruised from there, leading by as many as 35 at 85-50 before Fresno made a run against the Aggie reserves.
Fresno State was led by Nate Grimes with 21 points, Braxton Huggins with 11 and Noah Blackwell with 10.
Smith couldn’t be more proud of his young team that includes six true freshmen.
“At the end of the day, our guys have great resolve. They have great pride,” said Smith. "They want to represent Utah State in the right fashion. I don’t want to sound like a cliche — I cannot give these guys enough credit.”11 comments on this story
AGGIE NOTES: This marks USU’s first trip to the MWC finals and first time in a tournament championship game since 2011 when they defeated Boise State in the WAC finals . . . Utah State now leads the all-time series with Fresno State 36-26 . . . USU lost to the Bulldogs 78-77 in Logan in early January won 82-81 in Fresno in February . . . Utah State split the season series with Saturday’s opponent SDSU, winning 70-54 in Logan and losing 68-63 in San Diego . . . The Bulldogs, who fell to 23-9, are expecting to get invited to the NIT.