LOGAN – Utah State held their fourth straight opponent under 60 points and senior Sam Merrill powered the offense as the Aggies ran away from UT San Antonio with an 82-50 victory on Monday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. USU has now won 12 straight games at home dating back to last season.
“I thought we had two really good days of prep,” Merrill said. “Thought we had really good preparation coming into this game and I think that showed with the way that we defended… Thought we came out with the right mindset tonight and that’s usually, hopefully, what’s going to happen when we do that.”
A cluster of runs dominated the first half. The Aggies again started quickly, jumping out to a 11-2 lead before the Roadrunners immediately responded with a 13-2 run to take a 16-13 lead eight minutes into the contest. The lead for UTSA was shortlived courtesy of a 14-0 run by USU to go up 27-16 and give the Aggies a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game. After trading several buckets, the teams entered the locker rooms with USU up 41-29. Merrill was instrumental for the Aggies in the first half, scoring 17 of his game-high 21 points. Merrill did most of his damage in the first half from behind the arc, shooting 5-7 from 3-point range.
“That is something that I’ve been looking at through these first few games,” Merrill said. “I think that’s something that was on my mind. These first five games, I’ve just tried to play the game the right way and try to get guys going and be a facilitator. Tonight, they went under quite a few stuff so I just decided to shoot it and most of them went in.”
UTSA scarcely threatened Utah State’s lead in the second half. The Roadrunners trimmed the deficit to a modest 10-point lead before a dunk from junior Diogo Brito sparked a 15-4 run to all but seal USU’s fifth-straight victory to start the season. From there, the defense took over, allowing only seven points over the final 10 minutes.
“Our guys have a lot of pride. I think we have a lot of winners on our team,” head coach Craig Smith said. “It takes special people to be a special team. That takes a lot of sacrifice. It takes a lot of discipline. And it takes a lot of giving yourself up and your ego for the team to do it… To play good defense, you have to be obviously fundamentally sound but you have to want to do it and you have to have that kind of toughness and that edge to do that. We’ve demonstrated that we have that.”
To his 21 points, Merrill added three assists and three rebounds. Brito finished with 17 points plus seven rebounds, three steals and one block. Sophomore Justin Bean recorded his fourth game with 10 or more rebounds this season, snatching 11 rebounds, eight of which were offensive, in addition to nine points and five assists. Junior Alphonso Anderson ended with seven points, 11 rebounds and two assists. Junior Kuba Karwowski had arguably the best game of his young career with eight points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“I think we have a lot of high-character guys that play hard,” Merrill said. “When you have a team like that that’s just coming and coming, that just shows who we are as a team.”
Rebounding played a key role in the Aggies’ victory. UTSA out-rebounded USU 26-22 in the first half, allowing the Roadrunners to maintain reasonable distance to the Aggies. In the second half, however, Utah State ruled the boards, out-rebounding UTSA 33-10 over the final 20 minutes. The Aggies also held UTSA’s two leading scorers, Jhivvan Jackson and Kheaton Wallace, to a combined 25 points on 11-41 shooting.
“We knew coming into the game that we couldn’t let them get hot and we kept that always in our minds,” Brito said. “In the second half, the rebounding effort was great. That’s what got us going in transition and got us easy baskets. So overall, great defensive game and that’s what really got us going, stopping those guys.”
After five home games to start the season, USU is 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 32.6 points per game. Up next, the schedule toughens. Utah State will play within the confines of the Spectrum only once until the calendar flips to 2020. Utah State’s first road challenge comes on Friday versus LSU in the Jamaica Classic.
“We’ve got one Division-1 home game until Januarty 4th… so we are going to be on the road a lot and against teams that going into the year were ranked very high,” coach Smith said. “I think our guys are just excited for every opponent. We know this team can be special and we take every game the same, we prepare for the same. We can’t control who we play next. We just have to go do the best that we can every night and see where the chips fall at the end of the season.”
Tip-off is currently scheduled for Friday at 5 pm MST.
Photos by Sean Greene