LAS VEGAS – “He is everything that a college athlete is all about.”
Senior Sam Merrill made one of the biggest shots in Utah State basketball history, hitting a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining to give the Aggies back-to-back Mountain West titles after a 59-56 victory over San Diego State in the MW tournament final.
“Nothing surprises me,” head coach Craig Smith said, “and everyone is going to talk about that shot, and that was a shot of the ages certainly, without a question… He’s just the ultimate winner and competitor, and he grew up an Aggie, and it means so much to him. He has so much pride… That dude, every day. Every day. Doesn’t matter, 45-minute workout, hour and a half practice, three-hour practice. His team loses, he’s so PO’d without taking it out on anyone. When we lose, we run sprints and he wins that sprint every time. And that exudes to everybody else on the team when you can do that. I get a little animated because I love that guy.”
Merrill’s victorious shot seemed far from reality in the first half, however. Each team struggled offensively in the early going with a conference title on the line. Neither side shot above 25 percent from the field in the first eight minutes as players adjusted to the magnitude of the situation. The Aztecs settled in first, catching fire and going 4-6 from 3-point range during a 14-2 run to gain control over the first half.
While San Diego State woke up, the Aggies continued to struggle offensively, going nearly 13 full minutes without a made field goal as USU fell behind 27-11. Merrill finally broke the dry spell for the Aggies with eight consecutive points. A 3-pointer at the buzzer from senior Diogo Brito capped off a 10-2 run for Utah State to close the first 20 minutes and enter halftime trailing only 29-21.
“We had 11 points with three and a half minutes left… and then we were able to score 10 points in those last three minutes and get it to eight,” Merrill said. “Like Coach said, that was a big shot by Diogo (Brito). We felt confident because we had missed so many shots, and defensively we had been pretty good. Just made a couple mistakes. We felt confident. Felt like if we could fix a couple things and make a couple adjustments, we’d be in good shape.”
The Aggie comeback continued at the start the second half, repeatedly trimming SDSU’s to a single point but unable to fully overcome the Aztec lead until midway through the second half. The Aggies took the lead, their first since 12:10 remaining in the first half, on a 3-pointer from Merrill to take a 44-42 lead. SDSU, however, showcased what carried them to a top-five ranking for most of the season. MW Player of the Year Malachi Flynn immediately regained the lead for the Aztecs, setting up a back-and-forth affair for the final seven minutes to decide the conference title.
“Obviously we always held out hope,” coach Smith said, “and hope is a dangerous thing… That was a grind early in that game, if you remember. I think we had 18, 17 turnovers in the first half, and we were like Edward Scissorhands out there dribbling and dribbling off our knees and catching with our nose. And then we settled in, and I thought it helped us in the back half of the tournament. I thought we were the fresher team in the title game, especially the second half.”
Sophomore Neemias Queta then took up the offensive responsibility for Utah State, scoring nine of the team’s next 11 points as the Aggies built a precarious four point lead with three minutes remaining. The Aztecs proved that lead unsafe with a 5-0 run capped off by a Flynn jumper to retake the lead with 1:08 remaining.
Even with a conference title, an NCAA tournament berth and overall bragging rights on the line, Merrill flourished. Utah State’s star guard knotted the score at 56 after drawing a foul with 39 seconds remaining. After the Aggies forced a missed 3-pointer from Flynn, Merrill snatched the rebound to set up the final shot for Utah State, a shot which everyone knew would be taken by Merrill.
Merrill took the ball just past half-court and sized up San Diego State defender KJ Feagin. With a few crossovers and head fakes, Merrill squeezed out enough space to launch a shot well beyond NBA range.
Sam Merrill is a god. pic.twitter.com/wUI1vCSIYT
— Daniel Hansen (@TheGrandDanny) March 8, 2020
“I was just trying to get a good look,” Merrill said. “We had been hoping that I would get that opportunity. I barely slept last night, partially because the schedule is rough when you play that late-night game Friday night, and it’s a quick turnaround. Only got a few hours of sleep, but I was just hoping that I’d get that opportunity. I had a move and vision that I was going to do. I didn’t get to it because (Feagin) took it away, but I just threw it up there and it went in. I made that shot before, but you guys know what I’m saying.”
With 2.5 seconds remaining, the Aztecs had one final chance to force overtime. Flynn’s desperation 3-pointer drew back iron, leaving Utah State with the upset victory and a second-straight MW title.
“It kind of felt like one of those games where whoever is going to have the ball last is going to find a way to win,” coach Smith said. “And then they almost throw in a half-courter. But it was a heavyweight fight. We knew it was going to go 15 rounds, and fortunately for us, we were the last man standing.”
Merrill won the MW tournament MVP after scoring 27 points on 10-22 shooting, adding six rebounds and a steal. For the tournament, Merrill averaged 27.7 points, 2.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
“Oh, it’s everything,” Merrill said. “Like you said, that’s what I’ve been reaching for my whole life and trying to accomplish… but we had a sense of urgency all week. We didn’t play incredibly all week, but we found a way to win. And for me personally, just to be a part of it and to see all those fans there and to see Utah State back on the map is — like I said last year, it’s unlike anything I could have ever imagined.”
Facing a pivotal match-up versus SDSU’s Yanni Wetzel, Queta finished with 15 points on 7-12 shooting with eight rebounds and three blocks. Queta particularly won the second half versus Wetzel, holding SDSU’s leading rebounder to only three points and three rebounds. As a team, USU held San Diego State to a season-low 56 points on 34.4 percent shooting.
Junior Alphonso Anderson added eight points off the bench, including two crucial 3-pointers as the Aggies clawed back into the game at the onset of the second half. Anderson also had three rebounds, two assists and one steal and block.
“Alphonso Anderson… gave us some huge minutes all game long,” coach Smith said, “but certainly hit those two huge threes when they were up eight or seven, and it kind of kept them at bay, and then we were able to get enough stops there down the stretch.”
Sophomore Justin Bean again put together a great game on the boards, gathering in 12 rebounds to go along with four points, four assists and two steals. Senior Diogo Brito finished with three points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal. Junior Abel Porter was a team high +10 in 25 minutes, steadying USU’s offense with three rebounds and two assists. Sophomore Brock Miller added two points and an assist in 17 minutes.
“Basketball is absolutely a team game,” Merrill said, “and like Coach said, he talked about everyone that played well and everyone that stepped up. We wouldn’t have been in that position without those guys and without doing it together as a team. I know I made the shot and whatever, but we could not have won three games in three days without doing it together.”
The Aggies successfully defended their MW crown, becoming the first MW team to do so since New Mexico in 2013-14. It is also USU’s second repeat conference championship in school history, joining the 2000-01 teams who won back-to-back Big West titles.
“This one is even sweeter than last year’s,” Queta said. “We had a lot more ups and downs — a lot more downs than last year — and we just stuck together and just found a way to overcome everything that came at us. Coach Smith just always told us to stay together and just always try to think of the next play and keep staying together. It was just great. I don’t have words to explain it.”
With the victory, Utah State punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Last year, the Aggies earned a 9-seed in the big dance before losing to Washington in the first round.
“I’ll look back when this is all said and done and be grateful and obviously have fond memories of Utah State,” Merrill said. “But it’s been the goal from day one. We had a chance last year, didn’t come through, and fortunately found a way to get another opportunity. You can bet that we’ll bring our best to wherever and whoever we play.”
The Aggies will now await their seeding for the tournament. The NCAA tournament bracket will be unveiled on the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday, March 15 at 4:00 pm MST.