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When he takes the court Tuesday night for the last time in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, he would like to look up and see no empty seats.

It’s wishful thinking for the senior, but that’s what he would like in his final home game for the Utah State men’s basketball team. No. 5 would like to remember playing in front of a packed arena one last time.

“It’s going to be bittersweet because I have so many good memories here at this arena,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said. “I know it’s a late game on Tuesday night. I’m hoping there will be a good crowd and not just for myself but for Diogo (Brito). Diogo is the definition of Utah State basketball. He was not highly recruited and didn’t hardly play as a freshman, but he stuck it out. He has helped our team so much, and the same thing with Abel (Porter), a walk-on who earned a scholarship and has been so important to our team. Roche (Grootfaam) has hardly played but has the best attitude and is the loudest on the bench.

“We’re hoping people can make the sacrifice to come to a late-night game and support us.”

For those fans who come to watch the Aggies take on San Jose State, they will get to witness one of the greats play his final game at home. Merrill is still expecting to play in half dozen or more games in a USU uniform, but those contests will not be in Cache Valley.

“The sky is the limit for this team,” Merrill said. “Who knows what that actually means. We’ve shown the ability to play with and beat very good teams on our schedule this year. A lot of our best wins came when we weren’t playing our best basketball like we are right now. We are back into a rhythm on offense. ... We can still reach our goals.”

When the seniors are honored before taking on the Spartans, it may take a while in introducing Merrill. The Bountiful native has been moving up the career lists in his final season. His name is all over the record books for season marks, game records and certainly for what he has accomplished during his Aggie career.

Does any one list or statistic stick out more to him?

“I couldn’t tell you most of those,” Merrill said. “I know I’m No. 2 in assists (460, trailing Oscar Williams with 562) and No. 3 in scoring (2,078, trailing Jaycee Carroll with 2,522 and Greg Grant with 2,127) and No. 1 in career free throw percentage (.892). Those are the only ones I know. I really don’t pay attention to it. I just hope my impact is felt on the court.”

Here are a few more of his career accomplishments: Seventh in career steals (123), sixth in career field goals made (675), fifth in career field goals attempted (1,441), second 3-point field goals (300), second 3-point field goals attempted (711), seventh 3-point field goal percentage (.422), third 10-point games (103), seventh in games played (126) and fifth in games started (114). He is also climbing up the career lists in the Mountain West.

Having career highs of 38 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists and five steals, what does he take most pride in?

“I do like getting double digits in assists,” Merrill said. “It’s hard to do in college. Any time the assist numbers are high for the team, that’s a good number.”

Merrill is the lone Aggie to have more than 1,900 points, 400 assists and 100 steals in a career. He is just the third athlete to accomplish that feat in the MW.

“I did not know that,” Merrill said. “That’s cool and an interesting stat for sure.”

Another interesting fact is Merrill has had seven games where he has scored 30 or more points in a game, but none of them have happened in the Spectrum.

“I’ve never been able to do that at home,” Merrill said. “Part of that is I feel comfortable on the road, not that I don’t here. I think there have been a decent amount of games I could have at home, but every team plays better at home and I haven’t needed to score as much or gotten as many minutes.”

He was surprised before the last home game when he was presented a game ball at midcourt, honoring him for going over 2,000 career points.

“I’m grateful Mr. Hartwell (athletics director John Hartwell) did that,” Merrill said. “The fans cheering for me was a special moment. That was cool for sure.”

The best cheers are those at the end of games with the Aggies winning. That is ultimately the most important thing for the 23-year-old.

“There are a lot of great memories, but there is nothing better than winning a championship,” Merrill said. “Winning at Colorado State last year to win a share of the league title and then winning the conference tournament to this point have been the highlights. A lot of great wins, but we are hoping to do something even more special this year.”

The past two years there has been plenty of winning. With the 28 victories last season, the Aggies nearly equaled the 31 over his first two seasons at USU. During his nearly four years, Merrill has been able to enjoy a win 81 times so far with more to come.

The 6-foot-5 senior is the reigning MVP of the Mountain West and was tabbed the preseason MVP. Not one to seek the spotlight, Merrill admits the spotlight of all the attention can be daunting.

“I try and say this every time it comes up,” Merrill said. “For me, it’s not about putting up 25 points or anything like that. It was great to get some preseason accolades and for the things that happened last year, but for me it’s always been how can I play better to help our team win, whether that is defensively or passing the ball or scoring. I never felt any outside pressure. I put a lot of expectations on myself. It hasn’t been a perfect season for me. I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I would have liked early in the season. I’ve gotten healthy and I’m playing much, much better right now.”

Yes, he is. Over the last four games Merrill is shooting .623 (33 of 53) and .520 from beyond the 3-point arc (13 of 25). He has also made 20 of 21 from the foul line over that same timespan, but that shouldn’t be surprising since he holds the school record for career foul shooting at .891.

“This is the first time since the first six games that he has been 100 percent and really healthy,” USU head coach Craig Smith said of Merrill. “He’s had a myriad of injuries throughout this season. Our non-conference season was grueling in terms of travel and the competition we played.”

After some days off during the Aggies’ first bye of conference play, Merrill has seemed to have more pep in his step.

“He is playing excellent basketball, Sam Merrill type basketball,” Smith said. “He is certainly scoring it at a higher level than he was . He looks more mobile, more explosive. He is elevating more on his shot, really making a lot of plays.

“I also think it is that time of year, close to the end. You see this with seniors where they know it is the end of their career.”

Even though it is not about scoring for Merrill, he has been averaging 24.8 points per game over the last four and most likely would be closer to 26 or 27 had he not found himself in foul trouble against Boise State and sat for an unheard of 12 minutes in the second half of a close game.

Merrill is averaging 35 minutes a game for the season and 36.2 in league contests. His 4,185 career minutes ranks second all-time at USU, about 400 minutes fewer than Carroll.

For his career, Merrill has averaged 33.2 minutes a game. Smith quickly learned he could count on No. 5 to play big minutes and in fact he expected to.

“I learned in my first game at Utah State,” Smith said. “I took Sam out two times in the first half at Montana State. The second time he came out in the second half, as he walks by me he says how only Sam can, ‘you know coach, I averaged 36 minutes a game last year.’ I was, ‘oh, OK.’ That was good that he said that because everybody handles fatigue differently. It was a learning curve for me. Maybe he looks tired, but he is OK. Now we have very open discussions about it. I trust him.

“He loves to play and never wants to be out. There are times I’ve had to convince him to sit for a little bit, but he knows his body better than anyone.”

The Aggie guard has never made any excuses or wanted to talk about his nagging injuries. He did admit recently that his ankles have slowed him at times and “it’s been a bit of a tough year.” However, he said he is getting close to 100 percent and “feeling much better than a month and a half ago.”

“I also decided to change my mindset after that losing streak,” Merrill said. “I decided I needed to stop worrying about that (injuries) and just play as well as I could and try and win games. Since that shift with my mindset, it has been better.”

Merrill can be his own worst critic.

“I’ve had a good year, my percentages have crept back up and are basically where they were last year, besides shooting better from three,” Merrill said. “Assists are about the same, rebounds a little higher. Statistically, it has been a good year, but it’s all about what we can do as a team in the regular season and the postseason. We need to get to the NCAA Tournament, but then we need to take the next step for Utah State and get something done there. I feel I’ve done a solid job trying to help our team win games.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, Merrill leads the team in scoring (18.9), assists (4.0), 3-pointers (70), 3-point percentage (.414) and free throw percentage (.897). He is fourth in rebounds (4.3) and third in steals (22).

Despite averaging 30 points on .667 shooting and five assists in two wins against Colorado State, Merrill singled out a game the Aggies lost as his best this year.

“At San Diego State is my best game, where I had a double-double (16 points, 12 assists),” Merrill said. “Even though we didn’t win, I felt like I was in control.”

And his worst game during the 2019-20 campaign was against North Texas in Jamaica. It was the lone game he did not reach double figures in scoring this season. He finished with five points — all at the foul line — as he missed all six of his field goal attempts.

“They (Mean Green) are a good team and have been playing really well lately,” Merrill said. “They are one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever played against. It came after the LSU game and maybe I was emotionally drained a little. I just did not play well and hurt my ankle. That was definitely my worst game.”

While Merrill is usually all business, he has shown a fun side. Near the end of games he will engage with opposing players when free throws are being shot or there is a stoppage of play.

“I’m not a trash talker,” Merrill said. “I just like talking to guys. It’s nothing that’s the same every game. You can tell throughout a game if a guy is going to respond. If he is not going to respond, I won’t say anything. Most of the guys in the league are pretty good guys, so you can say something. Usually it’s something like how bad their teammates are or something about their coach.”

Most times you can see a smile on the opposing player and some even break out laughing.

As his Aggie career winds down, Merrill would hope funs remember him in the future.

“I hope they look at me, Diogo and the rest of these guys as integral parts in helping resurrect this program,” Merrill said. “Obviously coach Smith is at the top. Fans love those teams from the 2000’s. They have a deep respect for them and the players that played then, and I do too. That’s how we want to be seen as one of those teams.”

When the 2019-20 season ends, Merrill will not be done playing basketball. He has aspirations at making it at the next level, preferably in the NBA. He and his wife, Kanyan Ward, who was a soccer player at USU, are excited for the future.

“I’ve heard there is a real opportunity if I keep working hard,” Merrill said. “That’s the goal, the NBA. If that doesn’t happen, I’d love to keep playing so I could go over to Europe. The end goal is to either coach at the NBA level or work in a front office at the NBA level. That is down the line, because I want to play for as long as I can.”

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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