There was no worry about the Aggies seeing their shadow and shying away from the Rebels on Saturday afternoon.
In fact, the Utah State men’s basketball team took charge early and never looked back against UNLV in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. The Aggies rolled to their sixth straight Mountain West win — a program-best winning streak since joining the league six years ago — 82-65 in front of 7,157 fans.
And it really wasn’t even that close as the Rebels scored the final nine points of the game after the Aggies emptied their bench.
“The way we did it is what was key,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “We got great production out of a lot of different guys. ... That last four minutes I’m not sure we scored a whole lot and we let them get some point-blank shots, so those numbers are probably a little bit distorted. We outscored them 34-20 in the paint, made 10 threes. I thought we did a great job defensively, for the most part.”
Transition defense and hitting the boards were stressed before the game, and the Aggies (17-5, 7-2 MW) responded. The Rebels (11-10, 5-4) had just five fastbreak points and never seemed to get any momentum. UNLV came into the game as one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and was able to grab nine. However, USU more than matched that with 12 offensive boards of its own.
“I thought we had an amazing night from start to finish,” Aggie guard Diogo Brito said. “We came out strong, had a good run. Eventually we kind of slacked, but we were able to get another run toward the end. We got that separation and never looked back. I thought the key was really transition defense and rebounding, because they’re a great rebounding team. Our coaches emphasized that throughout the week. We were also able to push the ball up the floor and I think that really helped us with some easy baskets in transition.”
USU did get 10 fastbreak points.
The Aggie defense also held the Rebels to 36.8 percent shooting from the field. It was the 15th opponent USU has held under 40 percent this season.
“I thought it was a great game defensively,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said. “Focusing on our keys, our keys were to get back in transition defense and keep them off the offensive boards. I don’t know how many they scored in transition, but it wasn’t a lot, and they only had nine offensive rebounds. We did a great job there and did a great job defensively all game. They ended up shooting 37 percent, which is really good (on our end).”
Merrill scored a game-best 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting. He also had five assists and no turnovers. The junior was joined in double-digit scoring by Brito (15) and Neemias Queta (10). Quinn Taylor and Abel Porter each had nine points. Queta recorded his fifth double-double of the season, grabbing a game-high 16 rebounds.
“First of all, that’s a great win for our program,” Smith said. “They have a good team. They’re very young, they’re athletic and can do a lot of things to you. I thought our guys played with great force tonight. From the opening tip we were really aggressive and in attack mode all night.”
The Rebels, who have now dropped three in a row, were led by Joel Ntambwe with 18 points. Kris Clyburn and Amauri Hardy added 14 points each, while Clyburn and Mbacke Diong each grabbed nine rebounds.
“There was a lot of miscues, for lack of a better word,” UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies said. “It’s hard to pinpoint when you have so many different things mounting up against you. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is the cause. One of the causes is Utah State is a really good team. Craig (Smith) has done a phenomenal job in a short amount of time with his team. He’s got some experience, but he’s got the classes layered in a good way. That’s good for the conference. They’re going to be a good team from this year on out.”
After the Rebels scored the first bucket of the game, the Aggies reeled off eight quick points as Merrill scored a layup to start the run, and drilled two free throws to cap it.
Dwayne Brown Jr. found Porter wide open for a 3-pointer to spark a 9-0 surge. Brown hit a trey off a pass from Taylor, and Merrill converted a three-point play, also getting a nice pass from Taylor, who finished with four assists. USU took a 19-7 lead with 12:44 left in the opening half.
“We got off to a great start and got some easy ones (baskets) inside,” Smith said. “We did a good job with some back cuts. Any time you see the ball go in early on, shooting is contagious. You start getting some mojo and settle into a rhythm.”
The Rebels clawed back with a 11-2 run. A trio of long-range bombs got the visitors back in the game. Clyburn hit a trey to pull UNLV within 21-18 midway through the first half.
Brito ignited a 16-4 run by the Aggies by nailing a 3-point shot off a pass from Brock Miller. Miller would also hit a triple during the run. Merrill found Brito for three and hit a jumper to give the hosts a 37-22 lead with 4:26 before intermission.
“I’m really grateful that I’m taking good shots and they are going in,” Brito said. “I’m not the only one. We have guys that are shooting really good percentages.”
UNLV did not score over the final two minutes, while USU scored seven. A Merrill 3-pointer gave the Aggies a 48-28 lead at the break and a chant of “Up by 20” from the students.
UNLV got within 16, but then USU responded with a 12-0 run as the Rebels went nearly five minutes without scoring. Justin Bean provided the spark with two assists, a bucket and a free throw. Queta knocked down two foul shots to give the Aggies their biggest lead of the game, 72-43, with 8:20 left in the contest.
“We are playing the way we need to play,” Merrill said. “We are sharing the ball. I’ve said this a 100 times, but we want to share the ball, we want to rebound and we want to defend. That’s what we have done throughout the streak and hopefully it continues.”
Utah State began the day at No. 40 in the NET, the new ranking system being used by the NCAA this season, while UNLV was at No. 159. … With the 17th win, first-year head coach Craig Smith is now alone in third place for the most victories by a first-year coach. Ladell Andersen holds the record with 22 during the 1961-62 season. … The Aggies have outrebounded every opponent this season, with the exception of Houston and Fresno State, and Saturday was no different as USU won the battle of the glass, 44-32. … USU improved to 11-0 this season in games played on either Friday or Saturday. … For the eighth time this season, the Aggies had at least 20 assists as they finished with 22. … The USU bench outscored the UNLV reserves, 28-16. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 10th straight time and 21st time this season. With his 20 points, the junior now has 1,264 points, which moved him past Rich Haws (1,255) and into 22nd place on the career list. Merrill also moved up on the assist career chart, passing Reid Newey (298) and into 13th place with 300. … Taylor has now played in 116 career games at USU, which ties him with Newey for 13th. … Queta has blocked at least one shot in every game this year as he had three Saturday and now has 56 on the year, which ties David Collette for the freshman record for a season. … Porter took his fourth charge of the season and sixth of his career. … The Rebels still lead the all-time series with the Aggies, 32-8, but USU has won the last three meetings.
Several worthy candidates, but the ball goes to Brito for his play off the bench. The guard finished with 15 points on 5 of 9 shooting from field, including 3 of 6 from long range. He made both of his foul shots. The junior also grabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists in 26 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
Queta threw down a Merrill pass early in the game for the only dunk in the first half. It would be the only dunk of the game.
The leaders for the season are: Queta with 34, Brown Jr. with 5, Taylor with 4 and Brito with 3.
The Aggies hit the road for two games next week. They start at Fresno State (15-5, 6-2) on Tuesday night. The Bulldogs hosted New Mexico late Saturday night.