There were no Senior Night jitters by the Aggies late Tuesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
Not even close.
Utah State capped another successful home season with a convincing Mountain West win against San Jose State. The Aggies scored the first 19 points and never looked back in a 94-56 victory in front of 8,952 fans.
“This was a special, special night,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “You couldn’t have scripted tonight any better. For the fans that are willing to show up on a late night, Tuesday night, 9 o’clock and we go against not a big-brand opponent. I know it would have been easy for most fans to not show up and watch the game on TV. For those that did show up, we’re so thankful. It was a perfect night.”
It was certainly a night worth celebrating for the three seniors and a junior that were honored in their last home game.
“What an exciting night,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “That will be a memory that all four of those guys will remember forever. All of our guys were playing for them. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in life when you don’t worry about yourself and you do things for others. It’s so rewarding and humbling and peaceful, all of those kind of things at the same time. That was fun to see, and hopefully we can keep this momentum going the rest the way.”
Neemias Queta and Justin Bean had double-doubles, while Sam Merrill flirted with one. Queta had a game-best 23 points and added 10 rebounds. Bean had a game-best 13 boards and 12 points. Merrill finished with 18 points and seven assists.
All 11 Aggie players saw action and scored. With the win, USU (23-7, 12-5) remained in second place in the league standings.
“We put our foot on the gas for 40 minutes,” Aggie guard Diogo Brito said. “We made sure we kept playing. In the huddles, coach made sure we remembered the seniors and said seniors on three so we could remember what we were playing for. We were definitely taking care of business.”
Joining Queta, Merrill and Bean in double-digit scoring was Alphonso Anderson with 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Smith said there wasn’t an Aggie that played bad Tuesday night. Brito agreed.
“We came out with a lot of energy and aggressiveness,” Brito said. “We were aggressive tonight and that start carried us for the rest of the game. You go down the line, not one player had a bad night. Everybody was locked in, even leading up to the game. The scout team was amazing preparing us for tonight. Everyone was really locked in. They did it for the four of us, and that’s something I really appreciate — all the effort my teammates put in to let us go out on a good note.”
USU has now won six in a row, its longest winning streak since going 7-0 to start the season. The Aggies have won nine of their last 10 and have beaten SJSU (7-22, 3-16) 28 straight times at home and 25 of the last 26 meetings overall.
“Our mindset was fantastic leading up to the game and throughout most of the game,” Merrill said. “When you start off 19-0, that shows where your mind is at. For us seniors, it was a special night. I love those guys — Diogo (Brito), Abel (Porter) and Roche (Grootfaam). It was special tonight.”
The Spartans, who have lost eight in a row now and 11 of their last 12, were led by Seneca Knight with 13 points, all in the second half. Omari Moore and Richard Washington added 12 points each.
“They looked like an NCAA Tournament team, which I think they are,” SJSU head coach Jean Prioleau said. “We couldn’t guard them inside, size was a big factor. When you’re at that high end of the league, you look at the top half of our league and there is size, and we could not compete with that. The only way we could compete with that is if we would have made the threes that we took, then you can off-set that. But we weren’t able to do that tonight.”
It didn’t take long for the Aggies to start scoring and keep scoring Tuesday night. Queta tipped in a missed 3-pointer by Merrill to start the onslaught. Merrill missed his first two shots from beyond the arc, but then heated up and hit three in a row from three.
USU raced out to a 10-0 run as SJSU burned a timeout. It would get worse for the visitors. The Aggies scored 19 points before the Spartans got on the scoreboard. Five different USU players scored as the Aggies built a 19-0 lead at the 14:21 mark of the opening half.
After SJSU did score, Merrill drained a shot from long distance to bring out the “Up by 20” chant from the students.
It was 33-8 at the midway point of the first half. And it got worse for the Spartans, who did not score back-to-back points in the first 20 minutes.
The Aggies finished off the opening half with a 9-0 and 7-0 runs. Queta and Merrill each had 14 points to match the Spartans in the first half as USU took a 51-14 lead into the break. The 37-point lead at halftime was USU’s largest this season.
The second half started with a bang as the Aggies scored the first five points to take their biggest lead to that point, 56-14, and bring out a chant of “Up by 40” from the students.
Then the Spartans showed some life and scored their first back-to-back buckets of the night. In fact, they went on a 11-1 run to get within 59-27 with 14:27 to play.
After a timeout, USU responded by scoring nine unanswered points. The Aggies led by 40 for most of the rest of the game, and enjoyed a 92-49 lead with 1:50 to play for their largest lead.
“It was a very exciting game tonight,” Smith said. “What a great night in the Spectrum. It is a magical place. ... It was fun to see the ball go in the hole early, getting off to a 19-0 start. We had great production and great minutes from literally everybody that played. It’s always enjoyable when everyone scores.”
The Aggies started the day at No. 38 in the NET rankings, while the Spartans were at No. 280. … USU is now 29-2 at home under Smith. … The Aggies 19-0 start to the game was their best since a 22-0 start against Fresno State on March 1, 2010. … The Aggies are now 22-2 this season when outrebounding the opponent as it won the battle on the boards, 58-31. … SJSU shot 28.4 percent from the field, marking the 18th time this season USU has held an opponent under 40 percent. … The Aggies had four players in double figures and are 14-1 when that happens this season. … USU’s bench outscored SJSU, 29-12, and is now 19-2 this season when that happens. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 21st straight time this year, 27th time this season and 104th time in his career. He played in his 127th game to tie Tony Brown for sixth. He started his 115th game to tie Greg Grant for fourth. … Brito played in his 116th game to move into a tie with Reid Newey for 15th on the career list at USU. His parents, Jose and Maria Brito, were in attendance for their second Aggie game in a row. … Brock Miller tied his career high with six rebounds. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Spartans, 64-22, as SJSU is the sixth most played opponent for USU.
USU seniors Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito and Roche Grootfaam and redshirt junior Abel Porter were recognized before the game as part of Senior Night festivities. The crowd standing and applauded for all four, but broke out into a chant of “M-V-P” for Merrill.
“What a great moment for them,” Smith said. “Those four guys are fantastic people. They have done everything above and beyond what we have asked. They certainly personify Aggie basketball in so many ways. They are class acts off the floor, on the floor. I’m going to miss those guys. They are unbelievable people and certainly fantastic players.”
Despite knowing them for less than two years, Smith has grown close to this group. He gets emotional talking about what they have meant to him and the program he is building.
“That’s why I’m staring at the floor and not you guys,” said Smith when asked about his emotions. “It’s amazing that I have not even been here two years, but it feels like a lot longer, but in a great way. What those guys have been able to do is amazing. It’s tough to go through coaching changes. … I give those guys so much credit. Roche is a bit different, but those other three to stick it out and be all in is tough to do. … They bleed blue. They truly love Utah State.”
Grootfaam was signed by the previous staff and injured his knee in junior college and missed all of last year. Smith honored his signing and kept him on the team. He has seen action in 10 games and was able to score 13 points against Eastern Oregon.
“It was the right thing to do in honoring his signing,” Smith said. “Roche is always the loudest on the bench and supporting his teammates.”
All four seniors played and scored Tuesday night.
With many worthy candidates, the nod goes to a senior that has rarely gotten to play. Grootfaam got to play 10 minutes and scored four points on 2 of 7 shooting. His final bucket brought the house down as he dunked over two Spartans. Grootfaam also grabbed two rebounds and came up with a steal.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
Despite all the scoring in the first 20 minutes, none came via the dunk.
The first dunk came at the 14:03 mark of the second half when Queta took a pass from Merrill and two-handed it through. Grootfaam had the only other dunk, but it was a dandy as he slammed it down over two Spartans.
Season count: Queta 20, Trevin Dorius 12, Kuba Karawowski 9, Alphonso Anderson 9, Justin Bean 8, Brito 7, Sean Bairstow 4, Grootfaam 3, Miller 2.
After wrapping up the home portion of the regular season, the Aggies head on the road for the final game before the Mountain West Tournament. USU travels to New Mexico for a game on Saturday at 8 p.m. The Lobos (17-12, 6-10) play at Air Force on Wednesday. This is the one and only meeting between USU and New Mexico this season.