FRESNO, Calif. — Having moved into second place in the Mountain West Conference standings, the Aggies will be looking to lock that spot down over the next two weeks.
Utah State has knocked off teams above it over the past two weeks — with San Diego State being the exception, but then no one has been able to beat the Aztecs this season. Now the Aggies face four teams in the bottom half of the league, with two road games and two home contests left in the regular season. Win out and USU will have the second seed at the upcoming Mountain West Tournament in March.
“We have done a good job of getting back in the game, so to speak,” USU head coach Craig Smith said Friday after practice and before heading to the Golden State. “It was a big week last week, but if what did yesterday is a big deal, you haven’t done much today. It’s on to the next. We are playing to be the best team we can possibly be at the end of the year. I like the climb. You can see improvements from game to game.”
The Aggies (20-7, 9-5 MW) take on Fresno State (9-16, 5-9) at the Save Mart Center Saturday night at 8 o’clock. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Utah State is actually tied with Nevada and Boise State in the standings. However, both the Wolf Pack and Broncos still have to play San Diego State again. If the Aggies can keep winning, they will be in good shape.
“Ever since playing at Boise (and losing in overtime), we have been trying to get better,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “I think we are playing better. Guys are knocking down shots, and we are together on defense. Hopefully, we can just keep growing.”
Since that disappointing loss at Boise State, the Aggies have won six of their last seven. The lone setback was at No. 4 San Diego State, and USU had a 10-point lead in the second half in that game.
While the Aggies seem to be clicking right now and moving up in the NET rankings and being talked about again as a NCAA Tournament team, they know they can’t have another letdown. Facing the Bulldogs, who have won three of their last five, on Saturday could be tricky.
USU has won six of the last seven meetings with Fresno State, but six of those games have been decided on the last possession or in overtime. The only game that hasn’t been close was at the tournament last March when USU blew past Fresno State, 85-60. It took the Aggies an extra five minutes to beat the Bulldogs back in December in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, 77-70.
In the first meeting this season, Fresno State built a eight point lead with 13 minutes to play. USU fought back and held a four-point lead with less than two minutes to play. Bulldog New Williams, who would finish with a game-high 26 points, banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.
Merrill put the Aggies in front for good with a shot from beyond the arc. Abel Porter added a trey in the closing minute, and USU made its final six free throws to lock up the win. Merrill had 24 points and eight rebounds, while Justin Bean added 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Queta saw his first action of the season and was limited to 10 minutes.
It has been so long since the two teams met, that much has changed for both.
“They are different, and we are too,” Smith said. “Queta is a whole new player now compared to then.”
There are a handful of last-second shots that have determined the outcome over the past three years. The Bulldogs handed the Aggies their lone home loss last season, 78-77, with a 3-point shot with five seconds to play.
“It’s kind of like our series with Boise,” Smith said. “Every time we play Fresno State, it come down to the wire. … This is another chance for us to prove ourselves. We are 3-4 on the road in league and that’s not where we want to be. We have an opportunity down the stretch to be a team that can finish the regular season above .500 on the road.”
After that home loss, USU returned the favor at Fresno State in 2019. Queta had a monster game with 18 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots. Merrill, who had 20 points, five rebounds and five assists, knocked down a pair of free throws that helped the Aggies seal the win, 82-81. The Bulldogs hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it a 1-point game.
This season Fresno State has dealt with injuries and an ever-changing lineup. There are three veterans in seniors Nate Grimes, Noah Blackwell and Williams, but then a host of freshmen. Freshman forward Orlando Robinson is the lone Bulldog to start every game and the only player to have played in all 25 games.
“They are a young team, but a very dynamic team,” Smith said. “They can score inside with Orlando Robinson and Nate Grimes. Their guards can really get going and score in bunches. We saw first-hand what New Williams can do at our place. … Noah Blackwell is playing well right now.”
Fresno State is second in MW in blocks per game (3.7), second in 3-pointers made per game (9.0) and second in offensive rebounding (11.3).
“Owning the glass and winning the glass is going to be a huge key,” Smith said. “We also need to be able to stop them in transition defense. We also need to not turn the ball over.”
The Aggies average 10.9 offensive rebounds a game and 40.3 total. The Bulldogs average 37.6.
Robinson leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 13.1 points a game and is second in rebounding with 7.2 boards an outing. Two other Fresno State players average double figures in scoring in Williams (12.2) and Grimes (12.0). Grimes is the top rebounder with 9.8 a contest and also has a team-high 34 blocks.
Lately, the Bulldogs have been getting a lift from freshman guard Niven Hart off the bench. In fact, he had career highs in points (30) and rebounds (9) Wednesday in Fresno State’s 84-78 overtime win at San Jose State. For the season he is averaging 8.0 points off the bench.
The Aggies come into Saturday’s game off a 75-72 win at Colorado State. USU never trailed, but had to make plays down the stretch to hold on. Merrill had a season-high 32 points and is now third in career scoring at USU and sixth in the MW with 2,028 career points. Ironically, he could move into fifth in the MW Saturday and only needs four points to pass former Fresno State player Marvelle Harris (2,031).
Merrill leads the Aggies this season with 18.4 ppg. Joining him in double-digit scoring is Queta (12.4) and Bean (12.2). Bean and Queta are top two USU rebounders with 10.2 and 6.8 a game, respectively.