BC-BKC-T25-Nevada-Utah St,3rd Ld-Writethru
LOGAN, Utah (AP) — Sam Merrill is turning out to be Utah State’s true iron man.
Merrill played every minute against No. 12 Nevada, and the junior guard never wasted a second while on the court. He scored 29 points to lift the Aggies to an 81-76 victory over the Wolf Pack on Saturday night.
Utah State took over the Mountain West Conference lead.
It’s only natural to wonder if Aggies coach Craig Smith will ever sit Merrill. He has played all 125 possible minutes over Utah State’s last three games.
“I’m in good enough shape to be able to do it,” Merrill said. “It’s tough at times, but I’m grateful that Coach (Smith) has the trust in me to be able to stay out there for the full 40.”
Merrill gave Utah State a boost at critical times against Nevada. He provided his biggest spark in the early going, helping the Aggies take advantage of a slow offensive start by the Wolf Pack.
Neemis Queta threw down a dunk and Merrill followed with back-to-back 3-pointers for an 8-0 run that put the Aggies ahead for good at 19-12.
Merrill scored 15 of his 17 first-half points in the first 12 minutes. His final basket in that stretch put Utah State up 23-14.
Smith noted that Merrill lost 15 pounds during the offseason after changing his diet. It has given him the ability to be out on the floor for as long as the Aggies need him.
“He’s just so resilient and just brings it all the time,” Smith said. “Certainly, our team follows his lead.”
Diogo Brito added 15 points and eight rebounds, and Queta had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Aggies (24-6, 14-3). They won their sixth straight game and snapped a five-game losing streak in the series.
Caleb Martin had 23 points and nine rebounds for the Wolf Pack (26-3, 13-3) in their second loss in four games. Tre’Shawn Thurman added 21 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with 2:47 left, and Cody Martin had 16 points and seven rebounds.
Nevada closed the early gap with five straight baskets. The final one — Caleb Martin’s 3-pointer — cut Utah State’s lead to 28-27. The Wolf Pack couldn’t overtake the Aggies before halftime. Queta and Brito scored back-to-back baskets to keep Utah State in front and a scoop shot from Dwayne Brown, Jr. pushed the lead to 37-31 heading into the final minute of the half.
The Aggies led 46-36 early in the second half behind back-to-back baskets from Merrill and Brock Miller. Utah State led by as many as 13 points, going up 56-43 on back-to-back baskets from Merrill and Brito.
The Wolf Pack used a 10-1 run — highlighted by a pair of layups from Cody Martin — to cut Utah State’s lead to 65-63.
“They’re just so complete. They put so much pressure on you at every single position,” Smith said. “They’re the No. 1 offensive team in our league and the No. 1 defensive team in our league.”
Brito hit a jumper with 4:05 left to keep Nevada from erasing the lead entirely. Nevada had several players foul out over the final three minutes and was never able to complete its comeback. The Aggies hit 7 of 8 free throws and Brito drove for a layup in the final minute.
In the end, Utah State picked up a Quad 1 victory that shored up the team’s NCAA Tournament resume.
“I just hope they’re watching us,” Merrill said. “I don’t feel like this one win is going to put us in, maybe it will. But I feel we’re one of the 64 best teams in the country.”
Utah State fans stormed the court after the buzzer and that angered Nevada. Jordan Caroline punched a fire extinguisher encasement in the tunnel leading to the team’s locker room, breaking glass and cutting his knuckle. A graduate assistant on Nevada’s coaching staff also went on an expletive-laced tirade outside the locker room and had to be restrained by police officials.
Neither coach Eric Musselman nor any Wolf Pack players were made available to speak to the media following the game, despite requests to talk to them.
Queta’s 11 rebounds helped him pass Greg Grant to claim Utah State’s single-season freshman record for rebounds. The center from Portugal has 268 rebounds this season. Grant tallied 263 boards in the 1982-83 season.
Caroline became just the third active Division I player to have 2,000 career points and 1,100 career rebounds after scoring seven points. The senior forward now has 2,005 career points and 1,123 career rebounds.
A loss to Utah State in a tough road environment will likely drop Nevada only a couple of spots in the AP poll.
THE BIG PICTURE
Nevada never completely bounced back from early offensive struggles and trailed over the final 30 minutes.
Utah State came into the game on the NCAA Tournament bubble and may have a bit more breathing room. The Aggies can clinch a share of the Mountain West title with a win in their regular season finale.
Nevada: At Air Force on Tuesday night.
Utah State: At Colorado State on Tuesday.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25