LAS VEGAS (ABC4 Sports) – It wasn’t easy, but Utah State is moving on to the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game, surviving a scare against Wyoming, 89-82.
The Aggies (25-8) will face top-seeded and 5th-ranked San Diego State (30-1) in the title game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Utah State beat the Aztecs in the championship game last year, but lost both games to SDSU this season.
Sam Merrill had 27 points and seven assists, Neemias Queta scored 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, as the Aggies, who never trailed against the upset-minded Cowboys, held on for the victory.
The win most likely secured a bid to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the championship game, but a win over the Aztecs will give Utah State the automatic bid.
“It was a great test for us,” said head coach Craig Smith. “I thought Wyoming played phenomenal. They shot it lights out tonight. It felt like every time we made a mistake, they made us pay. But we weathered the storm, and I thought we stayed with it.”
Utah State moved the ball throughout the game, recording 21 assists on 28 made field goals. The Aggies outscored the Cowboys, 32-20, in the paint, while Brock Miller provided a spark off the bench with 13 points.
The game stayed tight for a large portion of the first half, with buckets from Sean Bairstow and Queta giving the Aggies their largest lead of the half of nine, 34-25, with 4:33 to go. Wyoming and Utah State went back-and-forth to end the half, with USU taking a 38-31 lead into the break.
Wyoming (9-24), which had already pulled upsets over 6th-seeded Colorado State and 3rd-seeded Nevada, trimmed the lead to two, 49-47, with 12:10 to go in the second half. The Cowboys continued to gnaw at the Aggie lead, but Utah State was able to counter each Wyoming bucket until Wyoming guard Kwane Marble II knocked down a triple and a couple free throws to tie it up at 66-66 with 4:45 on the clock.
Utah State came back firing with a 13-0 run after free throws from Bean, a Queta layup, seven straight points from Merrill and free throws from Queta gave USU the 79-66 lead with 1:28 to play.
“Obviously Merrill kind of took over there,” Smith said. “But we’ve got to finish that game better. I thought we got a little sloppy. But we did enough to win.”
Wyoming was able to trim the lead back to down six, 82-76, with 51 seconds remaining. The Aggies maintained their distance by knocking down late-game free throws to secure the 89-82 victory.
The Aggies did not miss a field goal in the final 11:12 of the game, shooting 10-for-10 from the floor.
Justin Bean had 9 points to go along with a team-high 10 rebounds for the Aggies.
The Cowboys were led by freshman guard Kenny Foster with 18 points.
USU shot 56.0 percent (28-of-50) from the field, 36.4 percent (8-of-22) from behind the 3-point line and 62.5 percent (25-of-40) at the free throw line. Wyoming shot 42.9 percent (27-of-63) from the floor, 45.5 percent (15-of-33) from behind the arc and 92.9 percent (13-of-14) at the free throw line.
Utah State, the defending Mountain West Tournament champions, will try to do something on Saturday that only one team has been able to do this year — beat San Diego State.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Smith said. “Almost all year, they’ve been in the top five. They have it all. They have playmaking at every spot, and they’re phenomenal defensively. So, we’re going to have to play very good basketball. But we’ve been there, we’ve done that and we know what to expect.”