LAS VEGAS – Next up, a familiar foe.
Utah State outlasted a barrage of 3-pointers to defeat Wyoming 89-82 to set up a rematch of last season’s Mountain West title game versus San Diego State. A year ago, the Aggies defeated SDSU 64-57 to claim their first-ever MW championship. A sequel awaits tomorrow at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“At the end of the day our guys finished very, very strong,” head coach Craig Smith said. “We found a way to win. And at this time of year, March Madness, it’s the old saying: survive and advance. And that’s what we did… I wish we could have had a few more stops but that’s a great credit to Wyoming. So we’ll take it and move on to play a heck of a team tomorrow afternoon.”
The game centered around Utah State’s domination in the paint versus Wyoming’s hot shooting from 3-point range. The Cowboys, who finished second-worst in the MW for 3-point shooting on the season, entered the contest having shot above 40 percent in each of the first two rounds of the tournament. The hot hands continued, as the Cowboys shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range in the game, including 10-19 in the second half. With Wyoming laying claim to the outside, Utah State staked out the interior. The Aggies won the rebounding battle 38-28 and outscored Wyoming in the paint 32-20, but were unable to take full advantage at the free throw line by going 25-40 on the night.
“(Wyoming) has been playing very good basketball now for the last three to four weeks,” coach Smith said, “and maybe it hasn’t always shown in the win/loss column until this tournament, but it was easy to see… And they played unbelievable tonight. I mean, literally they played fantastic. You go 15-33 (on 3-pointers). It felt like every time we made a mistake they made us pay. They played very connected, they played with great pace, and they made it very, very difficult for us.”
The two extremes played out to a draw through the first 35 minutes, as Wyoming managed to tie the game at 66 with 4:45 remaining. Facing a second consecutive close finish, Utah State’s stars came to the forefront. Merrill and Queta took over on both ends of the floor, overpowering Wyoming on a 13-0 to regain control of the contest. The pair combined for 11 consecutive points while Queta single-handedly stonewalled three straight Wyoming possessions with blocks at the rim.
“You just got to keep playing,” Merrill said. “They hit a ton of really tough shots. Guys that haven’t hit a ton of threes all year continued to make shots. And I think you feel a little pressure, but we do a good job normally of just moving on to the next play and focusing on the task at hand. And I think once they tied it up we went on like a 13-0 run, so that was a pretty good response by us.”
Even following the run, Utah State’s lead was not entirely safe. A continuation of lackluster FT shooting from the Aggies plus Wyoming’s continued hot shooting cut USU’s lead to single digits in the final minute. Utah State ultimately fended off the Cowboys’ last-ditch rally to close out with the 89-82 victory and set up tomorrow’s title game versus San Diego State.
“It’s the final and we’re just trying to win another conference championship,” Queta said. “And that was the goal for the season and I think that we just got to put aside whatever we got and just try to play through whatever adversity we got and just try and win it again.”
Merrill again led Utah State in scoring with 27 points on 9-15 shooting, also adding four rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Queta finished with 21 points on an efficient 8-11 shooting with six rebounds, five blocks and two steals. Sophomore Brock Miller added 13 points while shooting 3-8 from 3-point range. Sophomore Justin Bean fell one point shy of yet another double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds on the night. Junior Alphonso Anderson came off the bench to record eight points, eight rebounds and three assists. Senior Diogo Brito continued his stellar play in the tournament, finishing with nine points, five rebounds, five assists, plus one block and steal.
“We have a lot of dependable guys and we’ve been down this road before,” coach Smith said. “We still have a relatively young roster… We played some very difficult teams in very difficult environments. So they know what that’s like, they understand the moment, so to speak, and I think most importantly they just really trust one another. And it’s amazing what you can do when you believe in each other and you can look each other in the eyes that we can get this done.”
The Aggies were again without starting point guard Abel Porter for much of the game due to injury. With Porter unavailable, USU relied on Merrill, Brito and freshman Sean Bairstow to handle the majority of ball-handling duties. Bairstow ended with two points, three rebounds and one assist while crucially avoiding turnovers in his 15 minutes of play.
“This isn’t an excuse. It’s just reality,” coach Smith said. “We have had to deal with a lot of things that are a little bit out of our control, and that’s injuries… But we have tremendous character. We have had a few ups– we have had many, many ups and a few downs. But there was never a doubt, we weren’t going to flinch, we were going to keep responding and keep fighting and we put ourselves in a very good position and now we get to play for the title tomorrow.”
In last year’s title game meeting between the Aggies and Aztecs, Merrill led USU to the victory with 24 points. Utah State open the second half on a 13-0 run to seize control, including three consecutive 3-pointers from Merrill and then-freshman Brock Miller. This year’s Aztec squad will look quite different, however, with the addition of MW Player of the Year Malachi Flynn.
“(San Diego State) has had an unbelievable year,” coach Smith said, “certainly being the top 10 most of the year, top 5 most of the year. They have playmakers at every position… They have a great bench, and they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. They took care of us both times. I thought we played very, very well at their place and gave us every opportunity to win that game… So we know it’s going to be a heck of a battle and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Tip-off versus the Aztecs is currently scheduled for tomorrow at 3:30 pm MST.