LOGAN, Utah (ABC4 Sports) – Utah State is almost at the top of the mountain.
The Aggies moved into a virtual tie for first place in the Mountain West Conference with their first win over San Diego State since joining the conference, 70-54.
With the victory, Utah State improves to 23-6 overall, 13-3 in the Mountain West with a showdown with 12-2 Nevada set for Saturday night at the Spectrum.
Sam Merill led the way with 19 points, while Quin Taylor added 13 points and 11 rebounds, as the Aggies defense held the Aztecs to just 35 percent shooting from the floor.
“It’s a great victory for us,” said head coach Craig Smith. “I want to credit all the Aggie fans for coming out tonight and supporting us. It was almost a sellout, and their presence was felt, no question about it. The energy is so contagious and willed our guys. It’s amazing the impact that a crowd like that has on winning. ” thought we got a great spark from so many guys.”
With Neemius Queta battling foul trouble, Taylor, Diogo Brito and Justin Bean all came up with big games. Taylor scored scored 12 points, while Bean added 10 points and 8 rebounds as the Aggies won for the 12th time in their last 13 tries, including five straight, in front of 8,160 rabid fans at the Spectrum.
“Tonight was a fun night,” Taylor said. “It was great to play out in the Spectrum in front of basically a sold-out crowd. Any time you can get that fan support, it really boosts us. I feel like we came out with an edge and played 40 minutes with that. One of the things Coach has been stressing throughout the year is that we want to be the toughest team anyone plays. We want them to leave the gym saying ‘We don’t want to see those guys again.'”
“That was awesome,” added Bean. “That’s really all I can say to sum that up. It was electrifying, fans were amazing. You could definitely get a taste of what Spectrum Magic was. You could feel that from the very beginning tip-off.”
Utah State avenges its only loss in the last 5 1/2 weeks, and moved into a tie for first place with No. 12 Nevada (25-2, 12-2 MW), which was idle on Tuesday, but hosts UNLV on Wednesday night in Reno.
With Tuesday’s win over SDSU, Craig Smith took over the top spot all alone for most victories by a first-year head coach at Utah State at 23.
“We’re finding different ways to win,” Smith said. “We started the game 1-for-19 from the 3-point line. Eight of you guys would have made them, they were pretty wide open. It is what it is. To be able to win like that, we couldn’t do that two months ago. Now we’re finding different ways to do that. Points in the paint was huge tonight. To be able to take advantage of that and loosen them up, I thought our offense was clicking in a great way, except for those missed threes.”
Utah State struggled shooting the ball from the outside, making just 4 of its 21 shots from beyond the arc (19.0 percent), but more than made up for it in the paint.
The Aggies enjoyed a 46-20 advantage in points in the paint and of their 27 made field goals, 22 were either layups or dunks, including 10 out of 12 in the first half along. Utah State finished the night shooting 42.9 percent (27-of-63) from the field.
USU also owned the glass, outrebounding SDSU 44-30, led by Taylor’s 11 boards. Sophomore guard Abel Porter pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds, to go along with a game-best five assists, while Bean matched his career high with eight rebounds.
Bean was the spark plug the Aggies needed in the second half, especially after freshman center Neemias Queta picked up three fouls during the first 20 minutes of play, and his fourth with 12:10 to go in the game. Bean scored all 10 of his points and grabbed five of his eight rebounds following halftime.
Utah State, which snapped an 11-game losing streak to SDSU, led 31-21 at the break and pushed that lead out to as many as 21 with 3:26 remaining after Porter hit a 3-pointer.
The Aztecs scored the first four points of the game on a 3-pointer by Mitchell and a foul shot by Devin Watson. However, the Aggies used a 10-2 run to move in front for good. Merrill and Taylor combined for eight points during that stretch.
Queta finished with nine points, three rebounds and two blocks, and now has 72 blocks on the season, the most by a freshman in single-season school history.
SDSU shot 35.2 percent from the field (19-of-54), including 46.7 percent from beyond the arc (7-of-15), and 60.0 percent from the free throw line (9-of-15).
“They’re a hot team, they’ve won eight out of nine, they’ve been very, very good,” Smith said. “They just beat the defending champs (Nevada) a week ago, and they got the best of us two-and-a-half weeks ago. That was a very humbling game for us, but we got better from that game. Our guys responded in a major way. Obviously rebounding was a huge key. They manhandled us on the boards at their place with 14 offensive rebounds. To be able to hold a team like that to 35 percent – because they have so many weapons – and they only get seven offensive rebounds, that was the difference in the game.”
If Utah State beats Nevada Saturday night, the Aggies will take over sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference with one game remaining.