With all the fanfare planned for Saturday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, the current Aggies will be doing their best to focus on the task at hand.
The task is getting an opportunity at another Mountain West foe that beat them earlier in the season. Utah State hosts Boise State in a men’s basketball game in what is already a sold out Spectrum. Tipoff is set for 8 o’clock.
“We are anticipating a great night tomorrow with honoring the teams, coaches and all that stuff,” USU head coach Craig Smith said after practice Friday. “It’s going to be exciting to have all those former players back. And certainly every time the Aggies and Boise State play in basketball, it seems like it comes down to the wire. Certainly that is the case in my two experiences and probably the team that deserved to win didn’t win both times. But that’s basketball and you have to finish the game.”
Smith doesn’t want to downplay all the events going on Saturday.
“The guys are excited and we love playing at home no doubt,” Smith said. “For the most part, this team knows how to handle their emotions. ... There is going to be great emotion, but the beauty of sports is learning who you are and channeling it in the right direction.”
The Aggies (18-7, 7-5) are well aware of what happened in the first meeting with the Broncos (16-8, 8-4). Back on Jan. 18, USU had a 18-point lead late in the game and looked to be cruising to victory.
Boise State scored 14 unanswered points from the 3:36 to 1:12 mark and would force overtime. The Broncos beat the Aggies, 88-83.
“To be honest, that ending was horrific at Boise, but we played 37 minutes of probably our best basketball this season,” Merrill said. “They are playing much better, having won five in a row, so we understand the challenge.”
Smith agreed: “We have not talked about the last game much, but we have watched a lot of film on that game. It is what it is. Sometimes those things happen. We all have different regrets. It’s done and over with. You learn from it and move on. You can’t sit and sulk and wonder and wish what if.”
A celebration of the Spectrum turning 50 years old will also be part of Saturday’s game. Four teams from the past that won conference titles will be honored at halftime. Also, Aggie legends Wayne Estes and Ladell Anderson, who passed away in December, will be honored before the game.
“We have not talked about anything that is going on tomorrow night,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said after practice Monday. “We are focused on the game. We are hoping there will be a good crowd and , from what I’ve heard, there will be. The only thing I know is it is 55 years since the day Wayne (Estes) broke 2,000 points.”
Saturday will also mark exactly 55 years to the day that Estes became the first Aggie in program history to surpass 2,000 career points. Estes scored 48 points against Denver that night — reaching 2,001 — in what turned out to be his final basketball game ever.
“It’s going to be a packed house and an awesome night just honoring everything Utah State basketball,” Aggie guard Abel Porter said. “It’s going to be exciting, but we approach it like we did the first Boise State game. For 37 minutes we just dominated. We were ready to go and had the right mindset. Obviously, the wheels came off at the end. We need to come out again with the right mindset and add finishing the game. Hopefully we can honor the Spectrum by winning the game.”
Merrill has similar thoughts. And he isn’t even thinking about the fact he needs 22 points to match Estes on the career scoring list. Merrill knows about it, but that’s because he keeps getting asked about it.
“A lot of people have brought it up,” Merrill said of him getting close to Estes. “I would hope I could score, what is it, 22 points? I would hope I could score that over the course of the rest of the season. I know a lot of people have brought it up that it would be a good coincidence to do it tomorrow night, but you won’t see me coming out there just jacking up shots. We will be trying to win the game.”
Like Merrill mentioned, the Broncos have won five in a row. The streak started with the OT win against USU. Since then, BSU is averaging 82 points a game and 11 made 3-pointers an outing.
“Boise State is playing really well,” Smith said. “... They have really good players. We will have our hands full, but we are excited to get back on the floor.”
Only one game against BSU during USU’s membership in the MW has been decided by more than seven points. Each of the last two games have been determined in overtime.
“In a lot of ways we are similar teams in the way we play,” Smith said. “I’ve been here for two games, so my history is not deep, but it’s a rivalry game, so you throw the records out for those games.”
The Aggies have already avenged a loss on the road to UNLV earlier this week with a 69-54 win on Wednesday. Now they are hoping to get even with the Broncos.
While Merrill is not thinking about how many points he needs to reach 2,000 or pass Estes, he has had some monster games against BSU. In seven career games against the Broncos, Merrill has averaged 20.6 points. However, in the last three meetings, the guard has averaged 30.
“I don’t know if it’s any one thing,” said Merrill when asked about having big games against the Broncos. “I have some confidence, for sure. ... In the (MW) tournament I hit all those threes (7 of 10 from beyond the arc). They are a good team and, for some reason, I have really shot it well at their place.”
“Sam is just Sam,” Smith said. “He is a pretty motivated guy in general, but he has been able to perform pretty well (against BSU). He has that look right now. He is a senior and he is really healthy right now.”
Merrill leads the Aggies on the season, averaging 17.9 points a game. He is joined in double-figure scoring by Justin Bean (12.6) and Neemias Queta (11.6). Bean is pulling down 10.2 rebounds an outing.
The Broncos have four players averaging double digits in Derrick Alston Jr. (19.0), Justinian Jessup (15.4), Abu Kigab (12.8) and RJ Williams (11.7). Kigab did not play in the Broncos’ last game because of a hip injury, but Smith expects him to play. Williams is the top BSU rebounder with 8.2 a game.