It was certainly not looking good for the Aggies Friday evening.
No. 15 Utah State was on the verge of getting blown out in the last game of the day at the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic at Montego Bay, Jamaica. LSU was drilling 3-pointers and taking care of the ball. The Tigers had built a 19-point lead early in the second half.
But the Aggies believed and started chopping wood.
The USU men’s basketball team turned up the heat on defense and got more aggressive on offense. The Aggies gave themselves a chance down the stretch and made plays when needed to pull out a wild 80-78 win in front of 1,452 fans.
“This showed who we are as a team,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “We did not play well in the first half. ... That’s who we are as a team. We know there is always a chance and we need to find a way to win. We certainly did tonight.”
Yes, the Aggies (6-0) did. Merrill had a big hand in that. He drilled his fifth 3-pointer of the game off a pass from Abel Porter with 56 seconds to play. That would end up being the final points of the game.
“It’s a fantastic win in every way, shape and form, even spectacular being down 19 with 16 minutes to play,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “LSU is a very good team, reaching the Sweet 16 last year. They are so athletic and so big. They made life really, really difficult on us for a long, long time.”
LSU (3-2) had struggled through the first four games in making 3-pointers and turning the ball over. After the first 20 minutes, the Tigers were 9 of 18 from beyond the arc and had just four turnovers.
“We weren’t being aggressive enough in the first half,” Aggie forward Justin Bean said. “They (Tigers) set the tone and hit some shots. Credit to them. We let them get too comfortable.”
And it carried over to the start of the second half. LSU used a 7-0 run to build a 54-35 lead with 16:30 to play. Shortly after is when the Aggies started chopping wood.
“What a gutty performance, what a gutty comeback,” Smith said. “That takes character to do that. ... We tell our guys you just have to keep chopping wood. When you are chopping wood, you don’t cut down the tree in one big swipe of the ax. What a big-time win against a big-time program.”
Brock Miller hit a 3-pointer that sparked a 16-4 run over a four-minute span. Alphonso Anderson had two dunks off passes from Bean. Diogo Brito hit a trey, and Bean brought USU to within 62-57 with 9:39 to play.
“Coach Smith says it every day in practice, NBA; next best action,” Bean said. “We weren’t doing that. We were still focused on the plays we messed up on. It took a lot of grit, fighting and staying together. We moved the ball around more. When we do that, we are a dangerous team, and it showed.
Just when it looked like USU was back in the game, LSU used a 7-0 spurt to go back up by double digits with eight minutes to play. The Aggies did not panic, though.
“Forty minutes is a long, long game,” said Smith, whose parents celebrated their 50th anniversary Friday at the game. “You need to keep locked in on the process, keep cutting the lead in half, play in chunks. You need to stay away from hero basketball where guys start doing their own thing. That was not going to work for us. We had to stay connected, stay united and keep chopping wood, and we did.”
Merrill and Anderson teamed up to score seven and six points, respectively, during a 14-2 run. Bean made a free throw to tie the game at 71-71 with 4:13 to play. The game had not been knotted since the start.
Skylar Mays hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game to put the Tigers back in front, but the Aggies did not flinch.
Anderson drilled a 3-pointer, and Bean gave USU its first lead of the game, 77-74, with a three-point play with 3:01 left in the game. Bean credited Brito with a nice pass.
Mays, who ended up scoring the final 11 LSU points, scored and made two free throws to put the Tigers back in front. Neither team scored for a minute-and-a-half before Merrill hit what would be the game-winner. Brito poked the ball away in the closing seconds to prevent the Tigers from getting a last-second shot off.
Merrill and Anderson scored 24 points each to lead the Aggies, while Bean netted 14 and Brito had 12. Bean grabbed a game-best 12 rebounds. Merrill had eight assists.
“Justin Bean wasn’t his normal self early and we got on him,” Smith said. “He became Super Man. I thought Alphonso Anderson had his best game as an Aggie. And Sam Merrill did Sam Merrill things, just really put us on his back on the court and at halftime talking to guys.”
Mays finished with a game-best 30 points, while Darius Days and Emmitt Williams each had 14 points.
LSU hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the first 85 seconds of the game to set the tone early. Those treys were part of a 10-2 start for the Tigers.
Brito tried to rally the Aggies with seven straight points, capped by an impressive drive and dunk in traffic. The jam pulled USU to within 14-11 five minutes into the contest.
How did the Tigers respond? They drilled back-to-back shots from beyond the arc to trigger a 14-2 run. Two more treys capped the surge, giving LSU a 28-13 lead with 12:25 left in the opening half.
The Aggies went nearly three minutes without a point and more than three minutes between field goals. It would get worse for the 15th-ranked team.
Merrill hit a 3-pointer with 4:54 left in the first half. USU would not get another field goal until a rebound jumper by Anderson at the halftime buzzer. During that timespan, the Aggies made two free throws out of four attempts and missed six 3-point shots.
LSU took a 44-30 into the break. It was the first time this season USU trailed at halftime.
The Tigers quickly increased their lead to 19 points before the Aggies rallied.
“We are a veteran team and have been there before, maybe not a deficit like that,” Merrill said. “I thought it was interesting that Diogo kept saying: ‘We are going to win this game, we are going to win this game.’ Once we figured it out, started playing our style of basketball and toughened up, we started playing a lot better.”
USU improved to 62-18 all-time as an AP ranked team. … The Aggie bench outscored its counterparts, 36-4, Friday and have done so in every game this season. … USU won the battle on the boards, 34-31, and have outrebounded every opponent this season. ... Merrill scored in double figures for the 83rd time in his career and the 29th straight game, dating back to last season. Merrill also moved into a tie with Jeff O. Anderson for 10th on the career steals list with 105 and moved past Nate Harris (3,422) and into ninth in career minutes played with 3,429 after playing 37 in Friday’s game. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Tigers, 3-1.
MYRTLE BEACH BOUND IN 2020
The Aggies will be one of eight teams set to compete in the 2020 Myrtle Beach Invitational in Conway, South Carolina, next year on Nov. 19, 20 and 22. USU announced the invitation to the tournament on Thursday. It will be played in the HTC Center, home of Coastal Carolina University.
The Aggies will be joined at the tournament by Charlotte, Dayton, Loyola (Chicago), Missouri, Nebraska, Penn and Pitt.
The event is in its third year and is owned and operated by ESPN. Matchups and a schedule for the entire tournament will be announced at a later date.
When you flirt with a triple-double, you get the nod. Bean responded from a challenge from the head coach and finished with his third double-double of the season with 14 points and a game-best 12 rebounds. The sophomore was 6 of 12 from the field and 2 of 3 from the foul line. Bean also dished out a career-high six assists and came up with two steals in 32 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
Brito went strong to the basket five minutes into the contest and slammed one down in traffic for the lone jam of the first half.
In the second half, Bean found Anderson three times for dunks on similar passes as Anderson cut to the rim.
Season count: Anderson 5, Kuba Karwowski 4, Trevin Dorius 4, Brito 4, Bean 2, Sean Bairstow 1, Miller 1.
The Aggies remain in Jamaica for a game on Sunday against North Texas. The Mean Green (2-4) lost to Rhode Island, 60-47, in the game before USU on Friday. The Aggies lead the all-time series with North Texas, 9-1.