SAN DIEGO (AP) — Four days after a miserable loss at New Mexico, streaky San Diego State beat Utah State in a performance that could help the Aztecs in March.
Devin Watson scored 23 points and Jalen McDaniels had 16 for San Diego State, which blew a 13-point lead before beating the Aggies 68-63 Saturday night to open the second half of Mountain West play.
The Aztecs (14-9, 6-4) had a 23-0 run in the first half and overcame a 35-point effort from Utah State’s Sam Merrill to improve to 11-0 against the Aggies since they joined the conference.
The victory followed an 83-70 loss at New Mexico in which SDSU blew a double-digit lead.
“Just a really satisfying team victory tonight,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “We set a game plan, switched up what we were doing two days ago and got it done on the floor. I’ve got a group of kids who want to get better, who want to be coached, who want to play the right way.”
Merrill finished two shy of his career-high before fouling out for the Aggies (18-6, 8-3), who came into the game in sole possession of second place. Freshman Neemias Queta was held to six points but had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
“Utah State’s a magnificent team,” Dutcher said. “They’re very good. I told the kids this is a big steppingstone for us. It will show us what lies ahead, that we can play with the top of the league leading into March because we’re not going anywhere unless we win the conference tournament. It was the first test against one of those teams that are going to be there at the end. We got some experience, we have some lessons still to learn but a step in the right direction.”
Freshman Nathan Mensah had his first double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, and Matt Mitchell also scored 10 for SDSU.
The Aztecs blew a 13-point lead they built in the first half and nearly blew all of a 52-42 lead in the second half before Watson made a bank shot and McDaniels hit a 3-pointer and converted a 3-point play with 4:51 left for a 61-52 lead.
SDSU has blown plenty of leads this season.
“Before we went out I told the guys, we’ve been up at half too many times for another one to slip away,” Watson said. “We have to stay focused and go out here and play a full 20 minutes and we did that. It felt amazing. That was a big win.
“We played with an IQ tonight,” he said. “We played smart in the end and we also played defense. We locked up. Even though Merrill was getting his buckets, I felt like we made it tough on them.”
Merrill hit a 3-pointer with 2:10 left to close to 63-58 but then had a shot blocked by Mensah.
Merrill fouled out with 49 seconds to go when he was called for charging.
“He carried us on the offensive side and he gave us a chance,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “He hasn’t had to do that for a while but he is such a competitor that when they went on that run he had that look where he needed the ball, he got the ball and he willed us to stay in the game.”
Merrill said his big performance was in response to SDSU’s 23-0 run.
“When they went on that big run, I felt I needed to create some shots a little bit,” he said. “I made some shots but it wasn’t enough.”
Both teams went hot and cold.
Watson had eight points during a 23-0 run midway through the first half that carried SDSU from a 10-point deficit to a 31-18 lead. He had a 3-pointer and a 3-point play, and also fed Mensah for an alley-oop slam. McDaniels finished the run with a 3-pointer for a 13-point lead with 5:35 to go before halftime.
“It was a killer,” Smith said. “And it was a little bit of everything and everybody. We had some uncharacteristic turnovers, missed some point-blank shots and they got it going in the transition game and the crowd got into it.”
Utah State snapped a five-minute scoring drought with Merrill scoring all the points in a 9-0 run to close to 31-27. He had a layup, two free throws, a jumper and a 3-pointer.
SDSU scored only two more points the rest of the half and led 33-29.
The Aggies then scored the first five points of the second half to take a 34-33 lead.
Utah State: Trails 11-3 in the series.
San Diego State: McDaniels fell three rebounds shy of a double-double. He has now missed getting a double-double in three straight games after recording six straight double-doubles. Mensah joined Kawhi Leonard as the only Aztecs freshmen in the last 23 years to have at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and three blocked shots in a game.
Utah State hosts Wyoming on Wednesday night.
San Diego State is at Colorado State on Tuesday night.