LAS VEGAS — Utah State’s Sam Merrill scored the first 5 points of the game and the Aggies were off and running.
There was nothing the Fresno State Bulldogs could do to combat the offensive onslaught of the Aggies.
Merrill led his team with 22 points en route to an 85-60 blowout win over the Bulldogs in the second semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. The junior guard scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half amid a 50-point performance by the Aggies to claim a 23-point lead over the Bulldogs.
The Aggies made eight first-half 3-pointers, including three apiece from Merrill and Diogo Brito, to overwhelm a Fresno State team that has played Utah State close in its two previous matchups earlier in the season. Only 2 points separated the two teams in their previous games — each team claimed a 1-point win in conference play — but Friday night the shots were falling for the team in white.
And while the shots appeared to come easy for the Aggies, it was their defensive effort against the Bulldogs that opened up the offense.
“When we're guarding like we did from the beginning of the game, that ignites our offense,” Merrill said. “And vice versa, when we're making shots like that, that gets our defense going.”
“We played a very good team,” Utah State coach Craig Smith added. “And we played a great game on both ends of the floor. We played well on offense but I thought we were even better defensively.”
To Utah State’s credit, they held a team that averages just over 11 3-pointers per game to 5-of-26 from three. The Aggies swarmed the perimeter to challenge 3-point looks and out-rebounded the Bulldogs 43-29 to limit Fresno State’s touches.
Led by that stingy Aggies defense, Utah State limited Fresno State’s best shooters, Deshon Taylor and Braxton Huggins, to only 17 combined points on 7-of-28 shooting from the field and 1-of-12 from deep. Huggins finished the night with 11 points but only made one 3-pointer in the loss — a quick 3-pointer out of the halftime break.
“We defended well, but they also missed some open looks,” Smith said. “We were fortunate tonight to be able to hold them to that percentage. And we didn't let them get out in transition. They are fast and electric in transition. And I thought we did a really good job getting back and eliminating, for the most part, easy baskets in transition.”
The Aggies pushed the lead to as much as 35 points late in the game to dismantle any hopes of a comeback by the Bulldogs, who shot 40.4 percent from the field. The Bulldogs closed out the game on a 10-0 run, but the damage was already done and the Aggies held on to claim a 25-point victory to advance to the championship game.
“We just didn't come to play,” Fresno State’s Nate Grimes said after the loss. “We didn't follow the game plan. We didn't rebound. I know I didn't rebound, really, at all. And they just outplayed us.”
Grimes led the Bulldogs in the loss and finished with 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field, including 5-of-7 from the free-throw line.
Utah State had five players in double figures in the win, including a 20-point performance by Brito who managed four 3-pointers on the night. He was joined by Abel Porter’s 11 points, Neemias Queta’s 10 points and 13 rebounds, and Brock Miller’s 10 points.
The Aggies advance to the championship game and will play San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center at 4 p.m. MDT. The winner will claim the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, though Utah State likely will get into the tournament regardless of the outcome of the game.
Still, Merrill said the Aggies are looking to “play for a championship tomorrow and try to cut down some nets.”
Merrill thanked the contingent of Utah State fans that made the trek to Las Vegas to support the Aggies, but encouraged fans to make the drive Saturday to support the team in the championship game.
“We're hoping to have a lot more tomorrow,” he said. “It's not that long of a drive, it's only six hours. Coach will pay for your gas if you need to.”
“And your speeding tickets,” Smith joked before realizing what he said. “Well, let's not get too carried away.”