FORT COLLINS, Colo. — It’s not like he needed to redeem himself.
Sam Merrill has more than proven himself over the nearly four years playing for Utah State. However, the senior was not happy with having to sit for so long last Saturday because of foul trouble. So, with his next opportunity, Merrill proved why he is the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year.
Merrill played 38 minutes and 24 seconds Tuesday night at Moby Arena, and came up big time and time again for the Aggie men’s basketball team. With Merrill leading the way, Utah State was able to move into second place in the Mountain West standings with a thrilling 75-72 win against Colorado State in front of 4,038 fans.
“It was really a fantastic effort by all of our guys,” Merrill said. “We knew how important this game is, and Colorado State is a really, really good team. I have a ton of respect for those guys. For us to withstand all their punches and shots and find a way to win is just fantastic for us.”
Merrill also hit a milestone Tuesday night that he admitted he had hoped to reach last Saturday. In the first half on a layup, Merrill reached 2,000 points for his career as some Aggie fans danced around with signs that read “2,000.” Shortly after that, he passed Wayne Estes and moved into third on the career scoring list.
“Selfishly, I kind of wanted it to happen at home, but we won on Saturday, so it really didn’t matter,” Merrill said. “I’m so grateful. It hasn’t been done alone. There are so many coaches and teammates and family and my wife who have supported me and allowed me to get to this opportunity. I’m super grateful.”
Merrill finished with a season-high 32 points as he made 12 of 18 field goal attempts, including 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
“Merrill really carried us,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “He has 32 points on 18 shots. That’s the definition of efficiency. … Players make plays and what a milestone. Our team is so happy for him.”
But Merrill’s biggest shots came late in the game.
Clinging to a one-point lead with less than 30 seconds to play and the shot clock winding down, Merrill found himself guarded by CSU center Nico Carvacho. Merrill dribbled and then shot a dagger trey right over the 6-foot-11 Ram.
“It was a tough shot,” Merrill said. “I thought he (Carvacho) got a piece of it and he might have. It’s a shot I’ve taken thousands of times. I work on that almost every day, that hesitation right to left and fortunately it went in.
“... I made that shot, but Diogo (Brito) made so many plays, and Abel (Porter) and Neemie (Neemias Queta) and Brock (Miller) and (Justin) Bean also. It was really a good all-around performance.”
Merrill followed that up with a pair of free throws with 15 seconds to play, and USU (20-7, 9-5 MW) up by two. Then it was Abel Porter’s turn to drill a pair of foul shots after the Rams (17-9, 8-5) made a 3-pointer to get within one with nine ticks left on the clock.
Colorado State missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds, and Queta secured the rebound that turned into a jump ball. It was the Aggies’ possession and they were able to inbound it and avoid being fouled in the final two seconds.
“Those are four tough free throws; those are pressure shots,” Merrill said. “Credit to Abel for knocking those down.”
USU lead from start to finish, but could never put the Rams away, who had a three-game winning streak snapped. In fact, this is the second time this season USU has ended a CSU winning streak. The Rams have won eight of their last 10 games with the only two losses during that stretch coming against the Aggies.
“It was a heck of a college basketball game,” Smith said. “Colorado State is a very good team and very, very good in this arena. … It was big that we were able to play from in front early. They threw some haymakers late, but our guys responded.”
Joining Merrill in double-figure scoring was Queta (14) and Brito (11) off the bench. Queta grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds.
Four Rams reached double figures in scoring in Isaiah Stevens (19), Carvacho (12), David Roddy (10) and Adam Thistlewood (10). Carvacho, who was honored before the game for his 46 career double-doubles, which is a MW record, grabbed a team-best nine boards Tuesday.
For the second straight game, Queta scored quickly to get the Aggies going. The Rams answered, but shortly after USU went on a 6-0 run to build a little breathing room. Bean scored two buckets, including a steal and coast-to-coast layup to give the visitors a 11-4 lead three minutes into the contest.
The Aggies built their largest lead of the opening half with a 12-2 run. Merrill and Brito hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cap the surge and give USU a 28-16 lead with 9:52 left in the first half. Just before hitting the trey, Merrill hit 2,000 career points with a layup and moved into third on the all-time scoring list with the 3-pointer.
The Rams then used a 8-0 run to claw back. Stevens and Dischon Thomas each scored twice to pull CSU within 28-24 with 6:26 left before the break.
Merrill hit his second trey of the first half late, and the Aggies took a 37-30 lead into halftime. Queta had eight points, eight rebounds and blocked two shots in the first half, but also picked up three fouls and sat the last four minutes.
Kuba Karwowski finished the first half and started the second. He played 10 minutes, grabbed five rebounds, blocked a shot and came up with a steal.
“Kuba gave us some really good minutes tonight,” Smith said. “He hasn’t played a lot in league play, but he is showing signs in practice. He was valuable tonight.”
Merrill was red-hot start to second half. He scored the first eight points and 10 of the team’s first 12 points as the Aggies jumped out to a 49-37 lead, matching their largest lead of the game.
The Aggies went cold, not scoring for more than four minutes. The Rams got back in the game with a 10-0 surge. It was tight the rest of the way.
“Winning on the road is not easy and it has been proven in league play,” Smith said. “For us to find a way to win this game was huge. We are playing good basketball right now and finding some different ways to get it done.”
The Aggies started the day at No. 48 in the NET rankings, while the Rams were at No. 95. … USU has now won at least 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 2011-12 and 2012-13 campaigns. … The Aggies are now 19-2 this season when outrebounding the opponent as they won the battle on the boards, 33-29. … USU had just eight turnovers, which ties for the second fewest in a game this season. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 18th straight time this year, 24th time this season and 101st time in his career. The 101 games ties Tai Wesley for third all time. Merrill also started his 112th game, tying Tony Brown for sixth on the career list. He also made 12 field goals Tuesday night to pass Wesley (657) and move into sixth in field goals made with 658. … Diogo Brito moved past Wesley (112) and into 10th on the career steals list with 113. He also had 11 points, and USU improved to 27-0 when Brito has scored in double figures over the last two seasons. Brito also played in his 113th game as an Aggie to move into a tie with Jon Wickizer and Brian Jackson for 19th on the career list. … Queta had his second double-double of the season and 14th of his career, and also blocked two shots. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Rams, 62-39, in the fourth most-played opponent for USU.
Merrill gets the nod. The senior scored a season-high 32 points on 12 of 18 shooting, which included 6 of 10 from long range. He made the only two free throws he got. The guard also dished out a team-best five assists, grabbed four rebounds and came up with a steal in 38 minutes of action. He also went over 2,000 points for his career.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
The Aggies did not record a dunk over the first 20 minutes of the game.
In fact, the first and only slam didn’t come until the 4:43 mark of the game when Queta put one in off a nifty pass from Brito.
Season count: Queta 19, Trevin Dorius 12, Kuba Karawowski 9, Alphonso Anderson 9, Bean 8, Brito 7, Sean Bairstow 2, Brock Miller 2, Roche Grootfaam 2.
The Aggies flew home after the game. They take on Fresno State (8-16, 4-9) on Saturday in California. The Bulldogs play at San Jose State on Wednesday. In the first meeting, USU beat Fresno State in overtime, 77-70, at the Spectrum way back on Dec. 7.