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No sweat: Utah State draws Washington to open 2019 NCAA Tournament

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Posted - Mar 17th, 2019 @ 4:22pm



LOGAN — Utah State men’s basketball has had a lot written about them during their run for a Mountain West championship.

Goals. Quests. Objectives.

But Aggie star Sam Merrill had to stop a reporter after Utah State’s 64-57 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament championship and issue a minor correction.

It’s nothing against the reporter; Merrill just has other goals than simply getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

“Actually, my goal is to win an NCAA tournament game,” Merrill said Saturday after the championship game. “It’s been, what, 2002, 2001, something like that; almost 17 years since Utah State’s won a tournament game.

“So this was obviously incredible. But I feel like we have a lot more left in the tank, and we’re going to definitely try and show that wherever we end up this next weekend.”

For the record, Utah State's last NCAA Tournament win came in 2001, when the Aggies stunned Ohio State 77-68 in overtime. They've lost seven straight games since then, and haven't been back to the tourney since winning the Western Athletic Conference's auto-bid in 2011.

Merrill’s next goal, then, will start in the Midwest Region. The No. 8-seeded Aggies will open the NCAA Tournament on Friday against No. 9 Washington in Columbus, Ohio, the selection committee announced Sunday on CBS.

Tipoff is scheduled for 4:50 p.m. MDT on TNT.

Utah State (28-6) is the only team from the state of Utah in the field of 68, and just one of two teams from the Mountain West, alongside Nevada.

"To finally hear it called and to go out to Columbus is an awesome opportunity," Merrill said Sunday after the selection show. "Even though Washington is a good team, and they pretty much ran through the Pac 12 for the regular season, I don’t know much else about them. But we’re going to prepare the same way we have the rest of the season, and we’ll see what happens."

The Aggies entered the Mountain West tournament as the conference’s hottest team, winning seven-straight games before blowing past New Mexico, Fresno State and the same San Diego State that beat top-seeded Nevada to stretch their active win streak to double digits.

Nevada was in a similar position, save a rare loss at Utah State ahead of the final week of the regular season and bowing out to the Aztecs in the tournament semifinals.

“Both of them were red hot,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “Nevada lost four games all year, two of them to us. Utah State hasn’t lost since we beat them and that seems like two months ago. They’re playing incredible basketball. Two really good teams.”

San Diego State was a bubble team, but the 21-13 Aztecs will ultimately fall to the NIT.

“I truly believe our league is a league that’s on the rise,” said Utah State coach Craig Smith, who carried through on a promise to make the Aggies conference champions less than a year after being introduced as the 19th head coach in Utah State history. “Now you get in the field of 68 and we want nothing more than to represent the Mountain West Conference.

“We’ll be pulling for Nevada like crazy. I would assume they would be pulling for us. And hopefully, we can make some noise.”

Almost one year ago, Smith stood at a podium in front of Utah State students, boosters and media and declared his intention to pull the Aggies to the top of the mountain, to win a Mountain West championship, and to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

One year later, his words still echoed around Cache Valley as his team learned its long-awaited selection bid.

"It’s been a special team, special players and a special community," Smith said. "Every game has been like a playoff game. I think that’s helped us.

"All year long, we’ve been in playoff games to be able to go into Las Vegas and validate and leave no doubt, I think it speaks volumes to the character of our team."

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