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Utah State rolls past Fresno State into tournament final

March 17, 2019
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Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) drives to the basket as Fresno State forward Sam Bittner, left, and guard New Williams (0) defend in the semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Friday in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — When they headed to Sin City earlier this week, the Aggies had one goal: To cut down the nets Saturday.

They will get that chance.

After a rugged, down-to-the-wire battle to start the 2019 Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship on Thursday, the Utah State men’s basketball team came out and played like a well-oiled machine late Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Aggies never trailed in the second semifinal of the day, cruising to a 85-60 win against Fresno State.

“You could make a good case for this being our best game of the year,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “... It has been a fun ride this year and glad to be back where the Aggies belong. … We want to cut down some nets tomorrow.”

For the first time since 2011, USU (27-6) will play in a conference tournament championship game. The last time the Aggies played for a title was when they were in the Western Athletic Conference.

“I was at that game in 2011,” Merrill said.

USU (27-6) has now won eight in a row and 16 of its last 17 games. The co-champions of the regular season left now doubt Friday night.

“Fresno State is a very, very good team,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said. “We have so much respect for them. … We played a great game tonight on both ends of the floor. We played well on offense, but even better on defense.”

The Aggies shot 48.5 percent from the field and hit 13 of 31 shots from long range (41.9 percent). The Bulldogs (23-9) shot 40.4 percent from the field and 5 of 26 from beyond the arc.

The Bulldogs (23-9) saw their four-game winning streak come to an end.

“Credit Utah State, they are a very good team,” Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson said. “... They looked great tonight. They are very well-coached. Hats off to them.”

In the first semifinal of the night, defending conference tournament champion San Diego State advanced to the final again. The Aztecs upset No. 14 Nevada, 65-56.

Five of the previous six games between the Aggies and Bulldogs had been decided by three points or fewer. That certainly was not the case Friday night. Five-and-a-half minutes into the game was the last time it was that close.

“Give our guys credit,” Smith said. “It was a great team effort.”

A night after having a season-high 24 turnovers, the Aggies had nine Friday night.

“We turned the ball over a lot last night, but we were not overly concerned,” Merrill said. “We played well tonight. It started on the defensive end. When we are going like that on defense, it ignites our offense.”

Merrill led five Aggies in double-figure scoring with a game-best 22 points on 8 of 15 shooting. Joining the guard in double digits was Diogo Brito (20), Abel Porter (11), Neemias Queta (10) and Brock Miller (10). Queta had his 10th double-double of the season, grabbing a game-best 13 boards. Merrill had a team-best five assists.

“Today it was huge for us to get stops and then go score,” Brito said. “... I was struggling yesterday. Coach talked to me, and I looked forward, not back.”

Nate Grimes led the Bulldogs with 21 points. He was joined by Braxton Huggins (11) and Noah Blackwell (10) in double figures. Grimes led his team with six rebounds.

The Aggies got off to a much better start Friday night. Merrill scored a quick five points in 47 seconds.

Merrill kept his hot start during a 8-0 spurt. He had four points, and Porter drilled a 3-pointer to give the designated hosts a 17-6 lead at the 13:12 mark of the opening half.

The Bulldogs clawed back within 19-14 when Aguir Agau hit a trey with 11:20 left in the first half. They would get no closer the rest of the game.

Brito and Justin Bean teamed up to score seven unanswered points to ignite a 15-3 run. Brito and Merrill knocked down shots from beyond the arc to double up Fresno State, 34-17, with 6:54 left in the first half.

Merrill and Brito got together to end the opening half as USU scored the final nine points before the break. Merrill converted a three-point play to the chants of “M-V-P” from the Aggie faithful, Brito took a pass from Quinn Taylor and drilled a trey to the chants of “Up by 20”, and Merrill hit a 3-pointer just before intermission. The Aggies took a commanding 50-27 lead into the locker.

Merrill hit his first shot of the second half, drilling a jumper off a pass from Queta, who had four assists for the game. USU just kept widening the gap over the final 20 minutes.

Porter gave the Aggies their largest lead of the game, 85-50, when he hit a 3-pointer just as the shot clock was about to expire. The 35-point lead came at the 2:48 mark.

After USU emptied the bench, the Bulldogs closed the game with a 10-0 run.

“This is a determined, hungry group,” Smith said. “... It has been fun to see the progression of this team.”

TIP-INS

Utah State began the day at No. 30 in the NET, the new ranking system being used by the NCAA this season, while Fresno State was at No. 75. … The USU bench outscored Fresno State, 27-9. … The Aggies have outrebounded every opponent this season, with the exception of Houston, at San Diego State and at home against Nevada, as USU won the battle on the glass Friday, 43-29. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 21st straight time and 32nd time this season, and now has 1,534 career points, which ranks 13th. … Taylor has now played in 127 career games at USU, which ties Tony Brown for fifth most. … Queta has blocked at least one shot in every game but one this season and had one Friday night. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Bulldogs, 37-25.

FOOTBALL BANTER

Late Thursday night after the Aggies had beaten New Mexico, 91-83, the USU players and head coach were relieved and even enjoyed some friendly banter during the press conference following the game.

Merrill was in foul trouble late in the first half and again in the second half. For the first time in five games he did not play the entire game. He still saw 35 minutes of action and scored a team-best 23 points while dishing out a game-high nine assists.

“That’s the first time in a while that I’ve been in foul trouble,” Merrill said Thursday night. “But our coaches do a great job no matter who is on the court, no matter who is guarding who, putting us in positions to succeed. To be honest, it felt like we were on defense almost the entire game. If this was a football game, they (Lobos) would have completely dominated time of possession.”

Merrill went on to talk about turnovers and staying in attack mode. However, Smith couldn’t resist.

“On a side note, I’m proud that Sam used the football reference,” Smith said.

“I’m a football guy, too,” Merrill said.

“The Saints, how did they do?” Smith said.

“They did better than the Vikings,” Merrill replied.

Ouch.

“I know,” Smith said.

It was another example of how this Aggie team has grown together under a new coaching staff.

GAME BALL

Once again there are several deserving Aggies, but a bench player gets the nod for the second night in a row. Brito scored 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting. The junior guard also grabbed seven rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked a shot in 28 minutes of play.

AGGIE DUNK COUNT

The Aggies had one in the first half, and it was a dandy. Brito pushed the ball on the break and sent an alley-oop to Queta, who finished with great form.

Brito jumped just high enough to put one down in the second half.

The leaders for the season remain unchanged: Queta with 47, Taylor with 8, Dwayne Brown Jr. with 8, Brito with 5 and Bean 3.

UP NEXT

The Aggies move on to the championship game of the MW Tournament. They will take on defending tournament champion San Diego State Saturday at 4 p.m. USU split with the Aztecs (21-12) during the regular season as each team won at home.