LOGAN – After a close first half Utah State used a runaway finish to snap its four-game losing streak and beat the visiting Air Force Falcons 71-49 at home Wednesday night.
Sam Merrill scored 21 points and Koby McEwen added another 20 while the Aggie defense limited Air Force to a 32.7 percent field goal percentage, including 3-of-22 from 3-point range.
“I would rate that as our best defensive performance over a whole game,” head coach Tim Duryea said. “…(Air Force) made 25 threes over their last two road games and they won both of them.”
As the only Air Force player to score in double figures, Ryan Swan led the Falcons with 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting. McEwen credited the Aggie coaching staff with getting a gameplan together that effectively limited Air Force’s Princeton-style offense.
“Once we guarded them out for 25-straight seconds they had to take tough shots at the end of the clock,” McEwen said. “We’ll take our chances with those.”
Merrill shot 80 percent from the field and was 5-of-7 from 3-point range. It was the sophomore’s third-straight game and 18th time this season scoring in double figures. Duryea said he was “as efficient as you can be as a player.”
“Sam Merrill was unreal,” he said. “I mean unreal leading our defense, communicating and then offensively.”
Like several of USU’s recent games there was an obvious difference in the team’s performance from half to half. The Aggies did lead for more than 16 minutes in the first half, but never by more than six points. Duryea said he liked his team’s first-half aggressiveness, but poor decision making led to seven turnovers.
“I thought we were making good plays,” he said, “but our delivery was not very good.”
USU was able to leave those issues behind and quickly pile on the points once the second half began. Merrill started the final 20 minutes with the first five points. Then, after Air Force scored back-to-back buckets, another Merrill trey started a 10-nothing run for USU which eventually became 21-5.
“There were a couple plays after (Merrill) started getting going that coach ran for him,” Aggie forward Quinn Taylor said. “He’s a great player and he’s going to hit his open shots.”
After leading by just four points at the break, USU’s run gave the team a 53-34 advantage with 10 minutes left. The Aggies led by as many as 25 before the game was over.
Alex Dargenton made his return from injury to play nine minutes and score three points. Duryea said he isn’t 100 percent yet, but that even in a limited role it was great to have him back.
“I wanted to play him a little more in the second half,” he said, “but the ankle stiffened up a little bit and I didn’t want to risk anything there.”
With the win USU improved to 11-11 overall and 4-5 in conference while Air Force fell to 8-11 and 2-5. USU will travel to California for its next game against Fresno State Saturday.