LOGAN – Facing the possibility of falling behind the pack in the Mountain West standings, Utah State was in desperate need of a spark.
Enter the duo of Neemias Queta and Sam Merrill.
USU’s two stars scored 18 of USU’s 19 points during one stretch of the second half, simultaneously shutting down the Rebel offense to power a 24-5 run as the Aggies ran away with a 69-54 victory over UNLV on Wednesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
“Great environment tonight on Spectrum Magic night,” head coach Craig Smith said. “It was electric in there obviously in the second half when we finally gave them something to cheer about… Tough-fought win, as almost every game is in MW play this year. It’s a dogfight every night, and happy to come out on top.”
After a slow start, the Aggies made the first move courtesy of a 9-0 run before the Rebels responded with a 9-0 run of their own to take an 14-11 lead midway through the first half. Neither side could muster another run before halftime, as a combination of turnovers and sub-par perimeter shooting prevented either side from building a lead larger than four points for the remainder of the first half. USU entered halftime trailing 27-25.
“Quite frankly, I kinda lost my mind at halftime with the team,” coach Smith said. “We were playing super hard. We defended very, very well in the first half. I just didn’t like how we were playing on offense, quite frankly, because I knew we were better than that… Credit our guys. Our guys had a really good look to them in the timeouts and huddles. We just had to hit the reset button and refocus, and our guys did. They didn’t flinch at all.”
Once play resumed, the Rebels quickly used a 6-0 run to go up 35-27, their largest lead of the contest. USU climbed back to near-even with an 8-2 run but were unable to retake the lead. Facing a 44-40 deficit after a made 3-pointer from UNLV, the Aggie defense anchored down and Merrill took over. Defensively, USU held the Rebels to 1-11 from the field over the ensuing nine-and-a-half minutes. Offensively, Merrill and Queta took over, with Merrill springing open on the perimeter and Queta rampaging the rim. With the team clicking on both ends of the court, the Aggies went on a 24-5 run to take a commanding 64-49 lead with two minutes remaining, all but sealing the win.
“In the second half, we really started moving the ball, got the ball inside to (Queta) and defended really, really well,” Merrill said. “That was a tough game for us and I think that showed a little bit how tough we are as a team.”
Merrill finished with 20 points, four assists and three steals on the night. Fifteen of Merrill’s 20 points came in the second half, where the senior also recorded two steals and drew a charge on a UNLV fastbreak.
“(Merrill’s) got a huge heart,” coach Smith said. “At the end of the day, like Michael Jordan said, ‘Our hearts aren’t tired and that’s all that matters.’ His heart wasn’t tired and he just kept coming and coming. You get to this time of the year when seniors start seeing the end… and all of a sudden it hits home like, ‘I can’t believe it’s almost done.’ They’re going to give you everything they’ve got. And he’s had a great look to him all year, but especially the last three weeks or so, he’s played really good.”
Queta anchored USU’s defense in a career-high 36 minutes, not recording a foul while notching 21 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Senior Diogo Brito chipped in with nine points off the bench, plus four rebounds and three assists. Sophomore Justin Bean added six points, 11 rebounds and three steals. Junior Abel Porter ended with seven points, three rebounds and four assists on the night.
“We played a really good game, especially in the second half. UNLV’s a really good team,” Queta said. “We played a really good game defensively… We just used our length a lot better, and the changes between zones and man (defense) kind of messed with them.”
The win moves the Aggies to 7-5 and fourth place in the MW standings, courtesy of owning a tiebreak over Nevada. Only two games currently separate second-place Colorado State from sixth-place UNLV.
“You’ve just got to keep playing and try to keep playing,” Merrill said. “I just understand what every game means to us and how important every game is for us.”
Next up for the Aggies is a rematch with Boise State, this time at within the confines of the Spectrum, where USU is 12-1 on the season. Tip-off versus the Broncos is currently set for Saturday at 8:00 pm MST.