COLUMBUS, Ohio — Blessed with the highest seed in school history going in, the Utah State Aggies are headed home from the NCAA Tournament feeling about as low as they could be.
“It’s been a good year for us, definitely, getting Utah State back to where Utah State basketball needs to be, but obviously this is still very disappointing,” USU guard Sam Merrill said after Utah State’s 10-game winning streak was brought to a sudden halt with a 78-61 loss to Washington Friday night at Nationwide Arena.
“We felt like this was a real opportunity to make that next step for this program, and we couldn't get it done.”
Befuddled by the Huskies’ swarming zone for most of the game, the Aggies (28-7) managed to cut a 13-point deficit early in the second half down to just one with under 10 minutes left. But back-to-back 3-pointers by Washington forward Nahziah “Naz” Carter quickly stretched the Huskies’ lead back to seven points, and Utah State fell further and further behind as the game wore on.
“(Carter) is a good player, but he hasn’t made a ton of 3s this year, so give credit to him,” Merrill said. “He hit some big shots.”
The win by Washington (27-8) was the first NCAA Tournament victory as a head coach for Mike Hopkins, a longtime Syracuse assistant who brought along the famous 2-3 zone used to great success by Jim Boeheim when he took over the Huskies two years ago. Although the Aggies played well against the defensive scheme early on to take an 11-5 lead, they ended up committing 21 turnovers and shooting just 35.2 percent from the field for the game.
“A lot of it is just the uniqueness of it,” USU guard Abel Porter said of the Huskies’ extremely active zone. “We haven’t seen anything like that all year, so it took us a full half of realizing what we were up against and figuring out where we could beat it.”
No one struggled against the Huskies’ defensive efforts more than Merrill, USU’s leading scorer at 21.2 points per game and the 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year. The junior from Bountiful was limited to zero points and just three shot attempts in the first half, and ended up with just 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
It was a stunning turnaround for Merrill, who had scored 29, 38, 23, 22 and 24 points in his previous five games.
“We’ve got to give them all the credit,” Merrill said. “Their zone was really good tonight, and they made it really tough on us. We had practiced against it all week, but like I said pregame, you can’t replicate the length and the athleticism they have.”
Freshman guard Brock Miller ended up leading the Aggies with 13 points, while center Neemias Queta finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but the freshman big man completed just 4 of 12 shot attempts. And like Merrill, Porter went 2-for-9 on his way to 10 points.
Washington shot 50 percent in the first half, just under 50 percent in the second half and ended up going 10-for-17 from 3-point range.
Senior forward Noah Dickerson (20 points, 12 rebounds) led the way in the paint for the Huskies, while sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell (19 points) and Carter (13 points) did most of their damage from the perimeter.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Hopkins said. “We came out in the first half, and Utah State hit us in the face early. But our guys showed a lot of poise, and we are able to settle down around the six-minute mark.”
Following the Aggies’ initial offensive spurt at the beginning of the game, the Huskies turned up their defense while Dickerson caused all sorts of the trouble in the paint on the offensive end. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior went 6-for-8 from the field and put up 14 points in the opening half, helping Washington pull away for a 40-28 advantage at intermission.
Utah State came out hot to start the second half, scoring the first five points to force Hopkins into calling a timeout. But the spurt was short-lived as the Huskies countered with an 8-2 run to go back up by 13 points.
Merrill finally scored his first points of the game on a 3-pointer with 14:25 to go, and the Aggies responded almost immediately with their last run of the contest. Using a full-court press, Utah State finally started to turn the tables on the Huskies and scored 18 of the next 24 points — the final three coming on another trey by Merrill.42 comments on this story
That led to another timeout by Hopkins, and thanks to Carter’s 3-pointers and a couple of steals, the enthusiastic cheering from the Utah State contingent quickly died out and the Aggies ended up getting outscored 24-8 the rest of the way.
“I want to congratulate Washington,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “I thought they played fantastic. They really disrupted us. We struggled to complete passes, and we had way too many turnovers. We ended up with 21 turnovers, which is very uncharacteristic of us.”
With the victory, the ninth-seeded Huskies advanced to face North Carolina, the top seed in the Midwest Region, Sunday at Nationwide Arena.