There were some crazy moments Wednesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, especially in the second half.
It was almost as if Spectrum Magic Night was having the opposite affect on the Aggie men’s basketball team. Somehow visiting UNLV had channeled in to getting the calls or no calls as it may have seemed several times.
But the Aggies kept battling. Once they seized the momentum midway through the second half, the hosts did not let up. Utah State went on to record a much-needed Mountain West win against the Runnin’ Rebels, 69-54.
“I felt we really earned this one,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said. “The Spectrum is a great home court. ... You have to win at home and find a way to win a few games on the road.”
It was looking a little grim two minutes into the second half. After scoring the last four points of the first half, the Rebels (11-13, 6-5 MW) opened the second half with six unanswered points to build a 35-27 lead. The Aggies (18-7, 7-5) called a timeout.
USU had begun the second half offensively with having a shot blocked, a turnover, then Sam Merrill was mugged twice on drives to the bucket that resulted in missed shots and no calls, and then another turnover. Not exactly the way the Aggies had hoped to start the second 20 minutes.
USU also had a bucket waved off after initially counting it after a foul. The UNLV coaching staff howled about the call and eventually the officials took the basket away. A flagrant foul was also called on the Aggies when Abel Porter tried to stop a breakaway after a turnover.
“The way the second half started, it was like, ‘oh boy, this could go a lot of ways quick,’” Smith said. “Credit our guys. They had a really good look in the timeout. We had to hit the reset button and refocus. Our guys didn’t flinch at all.”
But after the timeout early in the second half, USU scored with a Neemias Queta bucket and a chance at a three-point play. However, Queta would miss the free throw. The Aggies missed three foul shots over a three-minute span.
USU did start to score, getting the ball inside to Queta, then a Porter layup off a nice pass from Queta, and then a 3-pointer from Justin Bean. Still, the Runnin’ Rebels were in front, 44-40, with 11:24 to play after making a 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring.
That’s when the Aggies turned up the heat on defense, and Sam Merrill took over on offense. Merrill scored 14 of the next 19 USU points, while UNLV went 1 of 11 from the field during a span of 9:20. The Rebels had six turnovers.
“You just have to keep playing and keep a tough mind,” said Merrill, who finished with 20 points and three steals. “I understand how important every game is to us. ... We were able to speed the game up a little with the zones we ran and get some points in transition. When Neemie (Queta) is playing well, it opens things up for me.”
USU scored eight unanswered points to take the lead, and then put the game away with a 16-1 run. Queta, who had a game-best 21 points, slammed home a pass from Bean to give the Aggies a 64-49 lead with 2:12 to play.
“We moved the ball on offense and then we were pretty good after that,” said Queta, who had a season-high five assists as USU finished with 19 assists on 24 made field goals. “... I just played as hard as I could and tried to play smart.”
Diogo Brito gave USU its largest lead of the game, 67-51, with a breakaway dunk off a long pass from Merrill and sinking a free throw after being fouled. Brito came off the bench to score nine points, grab four rebounds, dish out three assists and came up with two steals.
“I thought Diogo Brito was really, really good and gave us great minutes,” Smith said. “He was tipping and deflecting the ball, creating some turnovers that led to transition baskets.”
USU shot 50.0 percent from the field for the sixth time this year and is 6-0 in those games. The Aggies also shot 37.5 percent (6 of 16) from 3-point range and is now 12-3 on the season when it makes at least 30 percent of their treys.
UNLV shot 38.5 percent, including 26.7 percent (4 of 15) from 3-point range. It was the 14th time this year USU has held an opponent under 40 percent shooting overall and also the 14th time it has held an opponent under 30 percent shooting from behind the arc.
USU has now held three of its last five MW opponents to fewer than 55 points.
Queta said he is “really close, really close” to being back to 100 percent. He played 36 minutes against UNLV.
“He was awesome tonight,” Smith said of Queta, who also had six rebounds and blocked two shots. “... Once we started getting him the ball consistently, which didn’t happen in the first half, just look at his stat line. He is getting confident.”
With his 20 points Wednesday, Merrill has now scored 1,979 points. Merrill needs 21 points to become the fourth player in school history to score 2,000 career points, joining Jaycee Carroll (2,522), Greg Grant (2,127) and Wayne Estes (2,001).
“We just want to keep improving and be at our best in March,” Merrill said. “We understand these three games, tonight (UNLV), Saturday (Boise State) and next Tuesday (at Colorado State) are against teams that are right in the pack. Tonight and Saturday are against teams that have beaten us, so we understand how big these are.”