LAS VEGAS — All week long Utah State players and coaches have been asked about the likelihood of the Aggies making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and they always deflected the questions, saying their goal was to win the Mountain West Conference title and earn the automatic berth.
That’s exactly what they ended up doing as the Aggies cut down the nets after defeating San Diego State 64-57 Saturday afternoon in the MWC finals at the Thomas & Mack Center, earning their first Mountain West Conference tournament title and their first tournament title since the 2011 WAC championship.
“Coming in here, people kept talking about the NCAA tournament, but all we were worried about was this tournament,” said USU first-year coach Craig Smith, whose team tied for the MWC regular-season title. “Let’s validate what we did in the regular season, let’s leave no doubt.”
The Ags left no doubt Saturday, coming out in the second half with at 13-0 run that gave them a nice cushion and then holding off a late rally by the Aztecs, who were trying to win the MWC tournament title for the second straight year. Earlier, the Aggies had sneaked by New Mexico in Thursday's quarterfinals before blasting Fresno State in Friday's semifinals.
After three grueling days, the Aggies are finally able to relax for a few hours before they find out Sunday afternoon where they’ll be headed, whether it’s down the road in Salt Lake City or to one of seven other sites across the country.
It’s the culmination of a journey that began last spring when Smith was named head coach of a team that returned just four players from last year's squad that went 17-17. The Aggies went 10-3 in nonconference play and after starting 1-2 in the Mountain West, won 17 of their next 18, including the three wins in the MWC tourney.
“I’ve never seen a group just bond together and come as far as we’ve come over the last 10, 11 months or so,” said Smith. “I’m so proud of our team.”
Leading the way for the Aggies Saturday, just as he has all year, was senior guard Sam Merrill, who, after a slow start, came back to score a game-high 24 points. Merrill was named tournament MVP, adding to his MWC player of the year honor.
Neemias Queta, the MWC freshman and defensive player of the year, added 17 points and eight rebounds, while Abel Porter chipped in 10 points, all in the first half.
The key to the win, as far as coach Smith was concerned, was the Aggies’ defense, which held the Aztecs well below their season shooting average as they finished with 33.3 percent and just 25 percent from 3-point range.
“To hold a team like that to 33 percent for the game and 27 percent in the second half, that’s how you’re able to close out games and close out championships,” he said.
The first half was a tight defensive battle with neither team shooting well, with the Aggies taking a 34-32 halftime lead as Queta scored 11 and Porter 10, while Merrill was held to just 3-of-9 shooting.
The Aggies came out inspired in the second half and immediately went on a 13-0 run as Queta hit a pair of hook shots inside, Merrill hit his first 3-pointer of the game and Brock Miller followed with back-to-back 3-pointers, one from the top and the other from the left corner.25 comments on this story
The Aztecs stayed within shouting distance and kept chipping away until they pulled within five with on a 3-pointer by Matt Mitchell with 2:41 left. Queta immediately answered with a reverse layup to make it 59-52 and the Aztecs were hurt by missing the front end of one-and-ones on consecutive possessions, which could have cut the lead to three. From there the Aggies closed it out with five free throws.
The Aztecs were led by Devin Watson with 18 points and Jalen McDaniels with eight points and five rebounds. Those two joined Merrill and Queta on the all-tournament team.
While the Aggies haven’t gone to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, they haven’t won a game in the tourney since 2001, something they want to change this year.
“It’s almost a Cinderella story, beyond a magical ride and our journey’s not done yet,” said Smith.