LAS VEGAS (ABC4 Sports) – There is no need to wait until Selection Sunday. Utah State is going back to the Big Dance.
Sam Merrill hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left, as the Aggies won their second straight Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship, beating #5 San Diego State, 59-56 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Saturday.
With KJ Feagin in his face, Merrill got off a fadeaway three-pointer that hit nothing by net. Malachi Flynn’s last-second half court shot rimmed out at the buzzer as the Aggies stormed the court in celebration.
“I actually had a move said up, but Feagin had me guarded good, so I just had to go to a little step back,” Merrill said. “And it went in.”
“That dude right there is a big-time player,” Smith said about Merrill. “I just don’t have enough great things to say about that kid.”
“This team has been through a lot this year,” said head coach Craig Smith. “With injuries, a tough stretch in January, but we never flinched. We were ready for this day and we showed a lot of fight. Not a lot went right in the first half, but we seized some momentum at halftime and we found a way to win.”
Merrill played all 40 minutes and finished with 27 points, earning Tournament MVP honors for the second straight year, as the Aggies locked up its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Merrill made 10 of 22 shots, including six three-pointers.
Neemias Queta added 15 points and eight rebounds, while Justin Bean had 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals. Alphonso Anderson added eight points off the bench.
Utah State (26-8), which lost both regular season games to the Aztecs, handed San Diego State (30-2) just its second loss of the season.
Utah State struggled out of the gates, going over 13 minutes without a field goal and fell behind 27-11.
But Merrill led a comeback at the end of the first half to cut the deficit to 29-21 at halftime.
Utah State took its first lead of the second half on a 3-pointer by Merrill with 8:57 left in the game. The Aggies stretched the lead to 51-47 on a dunk by Queta, who converted a three-point play with a free throw.
Malachi Flynn gave the Aztecs a 56-55 lead on a jumper with 1:06 remaining. A free throw by Merrill tied the game at 56 setting up the senior’s dramatic shot.
The Utah State defense held San Diego State to just 34.4 percent shooting from the floor.
“After we lost to New Mexico [last week], people were saying we might have been out of the tournament,” Merrill said. “All week we talked about finding a way to get in.”
Utah State will learn its NCAA Tournament seed and destination on Sunday, March 15th. This will be the 22nd time the Aggies have made the Big Dance, and it is the first time since they went three straight years from 2009-11 that they have made it in back-to-back seasons.
“Utah State hasn’t won a tournament game since 2001,” Merrill said. “This is our time.”