After not being themselves in two of the last three games, the Aggies returned to what had them nationally ranked for more than a month.
Utah State ended a three-game losing streak with an impressive outing Saturday night against Mountain West rival Nevada. The Aggie men’s basketball team lead from start to finish, earning a 80-70 victory that didn’t seem that close as the Wolf Pack hit four 3-pointers late in the game.
“We knew we had to be better,” said USU guard Sam Merrill, who flirted with a triple-double. “Those previous three games, San Diego State we played hard, just got beat, but those other two games we had stretches were it wasn’t our style of basketball. Our goal was to get back to playing Aggie basketball, which is toughness, playing together, doing things the right way.”
The Aggies (14-5, 3-3 MW) held the Wolf Pack (10-7, 3-2) to 39 percent shooting from the field, while shooting 46.3 percent. USU won the rebound battle in convincing fashion, 43-28.
“That’s been a big emphasis for us,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said of the rebounding difference. “We needed to get back to who we are. That was a monster emphasis in practice. We had some heart-to-heart meetings as a team. I give the guys a lot of credit. A lot of guys take responsibility to get better.
“Rebounding is a mentality. It comes with positioning, having an attitude and just going and getting that thing. It helped that we were bigger with Neemias (Queta) or Trevin (Dorius) in the game.”
In the second half, both teams shot much better. USU made an impressive 65 percent of its shots over the final 20 minutes and 18 of 22 free throws to secure the win.
“I think we were sharing the ball; we don’t have any selfish guys, but we went through some stretches in these last few games where we weren’t moving the ball like we needed to,” Merrill said. “We worked on that and did a better job sharing the ball. Twenty assists is a pretty good number.”
Merrill finished with eight of those assists, which was a game high. He also had 12 points and a game-best eight rebounds. Merrill only put up seven shots in game and hit all six of his free throw attempts.
The guard also blocked a shot and had just one turnover in 38 minutes of action.
“I just wanted to be aggressive and be better,” Merrill said. “I haven’t been as good as I need to be, especially (last) Tuesday night. ... Hopefully, I can do whatever is needed to help our team win.”
Of the nine Aggies that played, eight recorded an assist Saturday night. Abel Porter had four, while Sean Bairstow had three, which was the most for the freshman against a Division I opponent.
“Sean (Bairstow) is a great passer, and Abel (Porter) is a great passer as well,” Merrill said.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can each and every day,” said Bairstow, who scored eight points and saw 23 minutes of action off the bench. “We’ve got some really good senior guards ahead of me. I’ve learned so much from Brock (Miller), Abel (Porter), Sam (Merrill) and Diogo (Brito) in the last six months. They tell me to go play hard.”
Bairstow has been getting more playing time and drawing praise from the head coach.
“Sean just keeps getting better and better,” Smith said. “That dude is in the gym non stop, does everything we ask, he’s selfless, he’s a competitor and just keeps getting better. That’s what’s exciting. He’s a great athlete and a great passer. The dude is a winner. It’s not always easy as a freshman.”
Five Aggies reached double figures in scoring. Queta led the way with 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting, while Brito added 12 off the bench. Merrill, Queta and Brito were joined by Miller (11) and Porter (10).
Jalen Harris led the Wolf Pack with a game-best 31 points. Jazz Johnson netted 18 points.
USU scored the first six points of the game and took a 32-23 lead into the break. Porter gave the Aggies their largest lead of the game, 54-36, midway through the second half with a 3-pointer. USU was still up 18 with 2:30 to play when Nevada started hitting some treys.
Now the Aggies have all week to rest and practice. They don’t play again until Saturday at Boise State.
“It’s going to be nice to try and get some guys healthy and focus on ourselves a little bit,” Merrill said. “It was nice to get a win, but we still have a long ways to go to get back to the top.”
Merrill is sporting a black eye from last Tuesday’s game at Air Force when he took an elbow to his left eye.
“The eye is fine,” Merrill said. “It’s just kind of ugly.”
The Aggies begin the week at No. 78 in the NET rankings, while the Wolf Pack were at No. 99. … Former USU head coach Kohn Smith was at Saturday’s game, sitting right behind the Nevada bench with some members of his family. Smith was an assistant coach at Indiana when Wolf Pack head coach Steve Alford was a player for the Hoosiers . … The Aggies improved to 9-0 this year and 25-2 under Smith when scoring at least 80 points. … USU is 13-1 this season when it outrebounds an opponent and when its bench out scores the other team. ... Merrill had his 93rd 10-point game moving into a tie with Kendall Youngblood for fourth on the career list. Merrill played in his 116th game at USU, moving into a tie with Reid Newey for 14th on the career list. He also moved up on the career minutes played list, passing Jalen Moore (3,815) and into fifth with 3,827. . Porter tied his season high with five rebounds. … Justin Bean has been dealing with some injuries and was in foul trouble early Saturday as he ended up playing just eight minutes, hitting his second 3-pointer of the season and grabbing four rebounds. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Wolf Pack, 37-23, and have now won two straight.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
Queta threw one down with power eight-and-a-half minutes into the contest off a nice pass from Alphonso Anderson. Then Anderson took a pass from Bairstow and flushed it.
Queta got the first dunk of the second half, grabbing a pass from Sam Merrill and putting it down five minutes in. Queta added another near the end of the game off a pass from Porter.
Season count: Dorius 12, Kuba Karawowski 9, Anderson 8, Queta 6, Brito 5, Bean 5, Bairstow 2, Miller 2, Roche Grootfaam 2.
The Aggies have a week before they play again. They are next in action at Boise State (11-6, 3-2) next Saturday night. The Broncos were no match for No. 7 San Diego State late Saturday night, falling 83-65 in southern California.