Merrill, Aggies hold off Rams for 2nd in Mountain West

(Timothy Hurst, The Coloradoan via AP, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Sam Merrill was on fire Tuesday night, when Utah State men’s basketball needed him most.

Merrill scorched the nets with 32 points to go along with five assists and four rebounds, and Neemias Queta added 14 points and 11 rebounds to help Utah State hold off Colorado State 75-72 at Mobey Arena in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Diogo Brito added 11 points and two assists for Utah State (20-7, 9-5 MW), which moved ahead of the Rams and into a tie with Boise State for second in the conference with the Aggies' third-straight victory and seventh in their last nine games.

With the win, Merrill finished Tuesday night with 2,028 career points. The Aggie senior is the fourth player in Utah State basketball history to eclipse the 2,000-point mark, joining Jaycee Carroll (2,522), Greg Grant (2,127) and the late Wayne Estes (2,001). He’s also just the sixth player in Mountain West history to accomplish such a feat.

Isaiah Stevens had 19 points and seven assists to lead Colorado State (17-9, 8-5 MW), and Nico Carvacho added 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists for the Rams.

Colorado State cut the deficit to 1 at 68-67 on Carvacho’s layup with 1:13 remaining. But Merrill connected on his seventh 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to help the Aggies hold on for the critical league win.

"This tonight was obviously a big game for second place, and for us to stay in the at-large conversation," said Merrill, whose season-high 32 came on a season-best seven 3-pointers.

"Last year, when we played it was for a conference championship. I’d like to say that the biggest games bring out the best in me. But we had a ton of guys step up tonight."

The Aggies made four of their first five shots, including a 3-pointer by Abel Porter to take a 16-7 lead just 4:18 into the contest.

Merrill had a first half-high 12 points en route to a 37-30 halftime lead, and Queta added 8 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots — while missing the final 4:00 with three fouls.

Merrill scored 10 points in the first 3:15 of the second half, including a jumper to go up 49-37 with 16:47 on the clock. The senior from Bountiful made nine of his first 13 shot attempts, including four triples, to start hot.

But the halftime lead was a similar advantage the Aggies held Feb. 1 against No. 4 San Diego State, when the Aztecs rallied to win 80-68.

The Aggies weren't going to let a similar comeback happen again.

"We learned our lesson … and we had to be better," Merrill told CBS Sports Network. "We had a lot of guys step up in that second half."

The Aggies continued their road trip Saturday at Fresno State. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. MST on ESPNU.

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