Ever since their loss at No. 4 San Diego State to start the month, the Aggies have been taking care of business.
Tuesday was the third time in seven days the Utah State men’s basketball team beat an opponent that started the day ahead of it in the Mountain West standings. After the Aggies won at Colorado State, 75-72, in the most recent victory, they find themselves tied for second with Boise State.
“We were playing really good basketball, even when we lost at San Diego State, where we had an opportunity to win,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “We knew this was a big seven-day stretch. It’s not easy playing three games in seven days against those three opponents. They are very physical, very talented. Our guys had a great look to them, a great mentality.”
With the season winding down, the Aggies are looking to finish strong with four games to go. And each of those opponents are in the bottom half of the league standings.
“We knew how big this stretch was, not only for the conference standings but for at-large hopes (to the NCAA Tournament), if it’s necessary,” said Merrill, who had a season-high 32 points against the Rams. “Ever since that Boise game (at Boise State), we’ve just been trying to get better and better. I think we are playing better. Guys are knocking down shots, and we are together on defense. Hopefully, we can keep growing and in two or three weeks be playing our best basketball.”
The latest win for the Aggies (20-7, 9-5) was a fight right to the final seconds at Moby Arena. The Rams (17-9, 8-5) never led, but just kept hitting shots to stay in it.
“It was huge to get the lead early,” Smith said. “We had really good balance, particularly early in the game. Our guys made great plays off the ball.”
Colorado State also didn’t foul much, so trips to the free throw line for USU were rare, despite being one of the leaders in the country in foul shots.
In fact, the Aggies didn’t attempt a free throw until 15 seconds were left in the game. Merrill headed to the foul line for a one-and-one and buried both to give USU a four-point lead.
“It wasn’t bad officiating,” Merrill said. “We just didn’t get fouled a ton. ... Those are pressure shots. Credit to Abel (Porter) for knocking those down.”
After CSU’s Adam Thistlewood nailed a 3-pointer with nine seconds to play, the Rams fouled Abel Porter. The Aggie guard made both foul shots as well as USU went 4 of 4 for the game, which was a season low for attempts.
“We didn’t get to the foul line until the very end when they had to foul us and we are one of the best teams in the country in getting fouled,” Smith said. “We kind of missed that element tonight, but that’s a credit to them.”
There were not many fouls called in the game, especially compared to the outing last Saturday against Boise State, where there were 49 combined fouls. There were 21 on Tuesday.
The Aggies had 11 called on them, including four on Neemias Queta. The USU center had three with four minutes left in the first half. Still, the big man finished with his second double-double of the season with 14 points and a game-best 11 rebounds.
Diogo Brito joined Merrill and Queta in double-digit scoring with 11 points off the bench.
While the free throws proved to be the difference at the end, a 3-pointer by Merrill with 27 seconds left on the clock also loomed large. The Aggies were up by a point at the time and the shot clock was about to expire. Merrill found himself guarded by CSU center Nico Carvacho, dribbled the clock down and then shot a dagger trey right over the 6-foot-11 Ram.
“It was a tough shot,” Merrill said. “I thought he (Carvacho) got a piece of it and he might have. It’s a shot I’ve taken thousands of times. I work on that almost every day, that hesitation right to left and, fortunately, it went in.”
USU shot 50.0 percent from the field, marking the seventh time this year the Aggies have made at least half of their shots in a game. They are 7-0 in those games.
Colorado State shot 51.7 percent from the field for the game — 66.7 percent in the second half — and is just the third team this year to shoot over 50 percent against USU. It’s the first time the Aggies have won when an opponent shot better than 50 percent.
“Our defense wasn’t where it needed to be,” Smith said. “It was kind of like last year when neither team could stop the other.”
Four Rams reached double figures in scoring in Isaiah Stevens (19), Carvacho (12), David Roddy (10) and Thistlewood (10). Carvacho, who was honored before the game for his 46 career double-doubles — a MW record — grabbed a team-best nine boards Tuesday, and Stevens had seven assists.
With the win, the Aggies moved up three spots to No. 45 in the NET rankings, while the Rams were at No. 98 on Wednesday. … USU has now won at least 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 2011-12 and 2012-13 campaigns. … The Aggies are now 19-2 this season when outrebounding the opponent as it won the battle on the boards, 33-29. … USU had just eight turnovers, which ties for the second fewest in a game this season. ... Merrill scored in double figures for the 18th straight time this year, 24th time this season and 101st time in his career. The 101 games ties Tai Wesley for third all time. He now has 2,028 career points, passing Wayne Estes (2,001) and moving into third on the career scoring list. Merrill also started his 112th game, tying Tony Brown for sixth on the career list. He also made 12 field goals Tuesday night to pass Wesley (657) and move into sixth in field goals made with 658. … Brito moved past Wesley (112) and into 10th on the career steals list with 113. He also had 11 points, and USU improved to 27-0 when Brito scores in double figures over the last two seasons. Brito also played in his 113th game as an Aggie to move into a tie with Jon Wickizer and Brian Jackson for 19th on the career list. … Queta had his second double-double of the season and 14th of his career, and also blocked two shots. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Rams, 62-39, in the fourth most-played opponent for USU.
Merrill gets the nod. The senior scored a season-high 32 points on 12 of 18 shooting, which included 6 of 10 from long range. He made the only two free throws he got. The guard also dished out a team-best five assists, grabbed four rebounds and came up with a steal in 38 minutes of action.
The Aggies take on Fresno State (8-16, 4-9) on Saturday in California. The Bulldogs played at San Jose State late Wednesday. In the first meeting, USU beat Fresno State in overtime, 77-70, at the Spectrum way back on Dec. 7.