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Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via AP

Fast start leads Merrill, Aggies by San Jose State in senior-night rout

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Updated - Feb. 26, 2020 at 12:06 a.m. | Posted - Feb. 25, 2020 at 10:52 p.m.



LOGAN — Senior night was one to remember for Utah State star Sam Merrill.

Neemias Queta had 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Merrill added 18 points and seven assists to help the Aggies cruise to their sixth straight win, 94-56 over San Jose State on Tuesday night in the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum. Justin Bean added 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Aggies (23-5, 12-5 MW), who shot 48 percent from the field with 10 3-pointers.

“Tonight was just a little bit different, going out during warmups, hearing 'The Scotsman' and all that; it was just different,” Merrill said. “I think we did the best we could to understand what we are playing for, and not take San Jose State lightly. They’ve been playing some good basketball.

“Our mindset was great, and we did the right things.”

Diogo Brito supplied 6 points, five rebounds and five assists, and Alphonso Anderson supplied 11 points and six rebounds.

Omari Moore had 12 points to lead the Spartans (7-22, 3-14 MW), and Richard Washington added 13 points and seven rebounds.

Merrill’s third 3-pointer gave Utah State a 22-2 lead less than eight minutes into the game, marking the best start to a game since opening on a 22-0 run in a 76-39 win over Paul George and Fresno State on March 1, 2010.

“What a great night in the Spectrum; it is a magical place,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “I thought we got great production and great minutes from everyone who played; I don’t think anyone played that poorly.

"All of our guys were playing for (the seniors). It's amazing what you can accomplish in life when you don't worry about yourself. It's so rewarding, humbling and peaceful."

Merrill, the senior from Bountiful, wasn’t alone in doing the right things, either.

Brock Miller, a junior, hit a triple on consecutive scoring possessions to help the Aggies stretch the lead to 28-5 just a few moments later. Utah State made 7 of its first 9 3-pointer attempts, and never looked back in cruising to a 54-14 halftime rout — its fewest points allowed in a half since giving up 13 in an 89-34 win over in-state rival Weber State back on Nov. 8.

“We definitely were the aggressors tonight,” Brito said. “That start really carried us for the rest of the game.

“You go down the line, and not one player had a bad night tonight. Everybody was locked in, even the scout team in preparing us for tonight.”

Brito played a key role in the fast start, after Smith told him last Friday that he was going to start in place of Miller on senior night. The 6-foot-6 guard from Povoa de Varzim, Portugal, shot 2 for 5 from the field for 6 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in 28 minutes to help the Aggies keep pace for the No. 2 seed in the Mountain West tournament and remain in contention for an NCAA at-large berth.

“We know what we’re working for,” Merrill said. “We know there’s a lot to play for; that’s been our mindset since mid-January. Coach knows what he’s doing, and he ran a play for me on the first possession. I missed the shot.

“Diogo got the start tonight, and it really helped set the tone.”

The Aggies were led by 14 points apiece before the break from Merrill and Queta, helping produce the largest halftime lead of the year.

Even when Merrill wasn’t scoring, he was dishing: an alley-oop pass to Abel Porter, or a dish in the lane to Queta to help Utah State pull away for good.

But perhaps the best moment of the night had nothing to do with either of them. It came with 2:46 left, with the Aggies nursing a 38-point lead — and senior Roche Grootfaam rose over the crowd and finished off a dunk on a pass from Sean Bairstow, giving Utah State an 86-46 lead and sending the mid-week crowd in the Hurd student section into a frenzy.

“You love all your teammates; I definitely do. But if there was one guy that you wanted to have a special, shining moment, it was Roche,” said Brito of Grootfaam, the oft-injured post who showcased his athleticism twice — including a missed dunk moments earlier. “There aren’t a lot of guys I’ve seen in my 18 years playing basketball that bring so much energy and make their presence known as Roche in every single practice.

“He’s constantly talking, but that’s something that is behind the scenes, because he didn’t play a lot throughout two years at Utah State. But he’s someone that I was really rooting for to have that special play — and he was hunting it. I didn’t have a problem that he took it.”

Next up

Utah State closes out the regular season Saturday at New Mexico. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. MT on CBS Sports Network.

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