Merrill’s stellar night powers Utah State to 77-61 win over Colorado State

LOGAN – In a game that could hold seeding implications for the Mountain West tournament, senior Sam Merrill delivered one of his finer performances of the season in a 77-61 win over Colorado State. Merrill finished with 28 points alongside five assists.

“We really answered the bell the last eight minutes or so and played fantastic,” head coach Craig Smith said. “Sam Merrill was doing Sam Merrill things. He was in a groove. His shot looked smooth and he was making plays… At the end of the day, we took care of business at home going 2-0 on the week. Now we have another quick turnaround with a Tuesday game on the road. We’ll be ready to go to battle.”

As he has for much of the season, Merrill buoyed the Aggie offense, particularly early in the first half. The product of Bountiful, Utah dropped two straight 3s to start the scoring and put USU up early. A 10-0 run then offered the Aggies some breathing room, though such comfort quickly abated. A 12-2 run by the Rams trimmed USU’s lead to a single point before a layup by sophomore Brock Miller gave the Aggies a 31-28 lead at halftime.

When play resumed after halftime, neither side proved capable of building a sizable lead as neither the Aggies nor Rams led by more than three points for the first 12 minutes of the second half. The teams traded leads before the Aggies embarked on a 13-0 run powered by Merrill. Merrill poured in three consecutive field goals, including a 3-pointer, before assisting on a dunk by sophomore Neemias Queta. The run gave USU a 63-52 lead and forced a timeout from the Rams. Guarding a lead, the duo of Merrill and Queta continually extinguished any hope of a Rams comeback, helping to preserve a double-digit margin until the final horn. The Aggies have now won three of their last four after losing three straight games at the start of 2020.

“We have that edge, a chip on our shoulders,” junior Alphonso Anderson said. “We’re not the top of the Mountain West right now. We have to prove everything. We have to go get every game one by one and just keep competing. And it starts in practice every day and it’s been carrying over in the last few games.”

Sophomore Justin Bean ended as USU’s second-highest scorer with 13 points, adding nine rebounds and three assists. Anderson pitched in with eight points and three rebounds off the bench. Queta finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks in a high-profile matchup versus CSU’s Nico Carvacho.

“Those guys are both All-League guys. Those guys have bright, bright futures in front of them but I thought (Queta) did a great job,” coach Smith said. “I thought he was really good defensively. I thought our post defense was very good all night long… The turnovers were his biggest issue. Other than that, I thought he played fantastic. We need to get him the ball more, because obviously he’s a major impact player.”

After his 10th game on the season scoring 20 points or more, Merrill sits at 1,929 points in his Aggie career, only 71 points away from becoming the fourth player in Utah State history to score 2,000 career points.

“He made some big-time shots today,” Anderson said. “I’m sitting over there thinking like ‘how did he make that?’ He’s a big-time player… He’s just so smart. He knows how to get his teammates open shots and he knows how to get himself open shots.”

The win puts Utah State at 5-4 in MW play and in a crowded four-way tie for fourth place alongside New Mexico, Boise State and Colorado State. Seeding tiebreakers are decided first by head-to-head records, then by each team’s record versus the highest-seeded team not involved in the tiebreaker.

“I just think that regardless of opponent, I think we’ve been playing really well these last four games,” Merrill said. “Obviously, there’s what happened at the end of Boise. But you look at Nevada, 37 minutes at Boise, Air Force and tonight, that’s almost four straight games of really good basketball. We just want to keep grinding. We understand what it takes, so hopefully we can just keep getting better.”

Utah State’s season resumes Tuesday night versus Wyoming in Laramie. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 9:00 pm MST.

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