LOGAN — Utah State guard Sam Merrill finished with 29 points as the Aggies took down the No. 12 Nevada Wolf Pack, 81-76, Saturday.
Fans stormed the court at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum after the Aggies earned just their first win over a ranked team in 12 years, pushing Utah State into first place in the Mountain West Conference standings with just one game remaining.
“In a heavyweight fight, it’s not always how many punches you can throw,” Utah State head coach Craig Smith said after the game. “It’s how many you can take and keep getting up.”
The Aggies, who led throughout most of the game, were able to withstand Nevada’s runs and hold on at the end for the win.
With Utah State trailing 12-11 midway through the first half, a Neemias Queta dunk got the Aggies going. A couple stops on the defensive end would lead to back-to-back threes from Merrill to give Utah State a 19-12 lead. Another Merrill score a couple minutes later gave the Aggies their largest lead of the first half at 23-14.
After an 0-7 start from behind the arc, the Wolf Pack finally began hitting shots from the outside. Caleb Martin hit two from deep and Tre’Shawn Thurman hit another as part of a run that cut the Aggies’ lead to one, 28-27. Thurman averaged 7.3 points per game for Nevada coming into the game but scored 14 in the first half alone.
Merrill ended the half with 17 points while playing the entire first half for the Aggies, who led the Wolf Pack 37-33 at the break. Utah state shot 48 percent from the field in the first half while limiting Nevada to just 36 percent.
Contributions from Diogo Brito, Justin Bean, and Dwayne Brown Jr. off the bench also helped Utah State to a 4-point halftime lead. The Aggies would end up out-scoring the Pack 29-8 in bench points for the game, thanks in part to multiple players fouling out for Utah State.
“We’ve found a way to win in so many ways throughout the season,” Merrill said. “There’s going to be moments where we don’t know what’s coming, but I think who we are as a team and how we play as a team is going to help us get through any type of issue.”
Utah State went right to Queta to begin the second half. A dish from Merrill gave the big man a wide-open dunk, and an offensive rebound and put back on the next play extended the Aggies lead to eight, 41-33. But foul trouble kept Queta on the bench for much of the second half.
Brock Miller hit a corner three a couple possessions later to extend the Utah State lead to double-digits, 46-36. The margin didn’t last long, however, as Thurman answered with a three of his own for the Wolf Pack, cutting the lead back to seven.
But Utah State would answer again.
After forcing a tough shot from Caleb Martin, the Aggies advanced the ball to Bean, who hit Brito for a streaking fast-break layup that gave Utah State an 11-point lead.
After trading buckets for the next few minutes, Thurman and the Martin brothers led the Wolf Pack on an 8-0 run. Thurman hit a tough turn-around jumper at the end of the shot clock and Cody Martin banked in a contested layup to bring Nevada to within three with nearly five minutes remaining.
The defense would tighten up on both sides from there. After trading free throws and scores, Bean hit a free throw and drew a charge on defense to give the Aggies a 4-point lead and the ball with a minute left.
“It was a tough game. It was an emotional game. It was a physical game, and our guys just kept responding,” Smith said.
Caleb Martin POSTERIZES the defender, but he's called for the charge 😳pic.twitter.com/BkFJMtesN2— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 3, 2019
Merrill was fouled on the possession, sending him to the line for two free throws that gave the Aggies a 6-point lead with 50 seconds left. Cody Martin came right back for the Wolf Pack, hitting a pull-up 3-pointer to make the score 74-71. But that’s the closest Nevada would get as the Aggies hit their free throws down the stretch and got a break-away layup from Brito to secure the win.
Both teams shot the ball at about the same mark throughout both halves, as the Aggies finished the game shooting 47 percent, compared to 36 percent from the Wolf Pack.
Merrill played the entire game for the Aggies, shooting 8-of-19 from the field, including 4-of-7 from three to lead Utah State with 29. The stat sheet may not show it, but Merrill limited Nevada’s leading scorer, Caleb Martin, for most of the game with his defense. He held Martin to just 6-of-19 from the field, including 2-of-10 from three.
“That kid’s relentless. He’s so good,” Smith said of Merrill. “People want to talk about his offense … but what people miss the boat on is his defense.”
Brito chipped in 15 points and hauled in 8 rebounds off the bench in the win.
Jordan Caroline, Nevada’s second-leading scorer coming into the game, was limited to just 7 points on 3-of-15 shooting and also fouled out near the end of the game.
“We tried to just stay in front of him,” Brito said of his team’s game plan on Caroline. “I think four or five guys were on him.
"We just stayed in front of him and made him work for his shots.”
The win moves the Aggies into sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference at 14-3 with only one game remaining. The team’s last regular season game will be Tuesday at Colorado State.