Somehow, that formula worked in the Aggies’ first basketball victory over San Diego State in the program’s Mountain West era.
The Aggies moved closer to clinching second place in the conference with a 70-54 win Tuesday night at the Spectrum. And they’re allowed to have bigger ambitions, with first-place Nevada coming to town Saturday.
“We’re finding different ways to win,” said USU coach Craig Smith. “We couldn’t do that two months ago."
After the Aggies (23-6, 13-3 MW) smothered the athletic Aztecs with their defense, the players came into the interview room and quoted some of Smith’s sayings, as they like to do.
“One of the things coach has been stressing is we like to be the toughest team anyone plays,” forward Quinn Taylor said. “We want ’em to leave the gym saying, ‘We don’t want to see those guys again.’ ”
That could happen in the semifinals of the MW tournament in Las Vegas, if USU finishes second and SDSU (18-10, 10-5) places third.
The Aggies are targeting the top seed, now that they’ve moved comfortably of SDSU in the standings. USU had gone 0-11 against the Aztecs during six seasons of MW membership. This episode was an entirely different story, in an atmosphere that reserve forward Justin Bean labeled “a taste of what Spectrum Magic was.”
The crowd fueled USU’s defensive intensity. The Aztecs made 3 of their first 20 attempts from the field and shot 35.2 percent for the game. SDSU stars Devin Watson and Jalen McDaniels, averaging 33 points between them, shot a combined 5 of 24 and totaled 12 points.
That’s how the Aggies won, amid their own outside shooting woes. Merrill made only one 3-pointer and finished 6 of 20 from the field, but led USU with 19 points. Taylor added 13 points and 11 rebounds, Diogo Brito had 12 points and Bean scored all of his 10 points in the second half.
Merrill had scored 35 points in the teams’ first meeting of the season, a 68-63 victory for the Aztecs in San Diego. His struggles Tuesday were part of USU’s 4-of-21 showing from 3-point range – compared with SDSU’s 7-of-15 shooting. But the Aggies’ interior defense was outstanding, even with Queta playing just 16 minutes, as the Aztecs made only 12 of their 39 shots from inside the arc.
The Aztecs came to Logan with a five-game winning streak, including a victory over Nevada. After hitting a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession, the Aztecs made only 5 of their next 27 shots and trailed 31-21 at halftime. Queta missed the last five minutes of the half after picking up his third foul.
In the second half, Bean scored USU’s first six points, including two rebound baskets that kept SDSU from generating any momentum. “I got a couple cheap ones from guys not being disciplined and me just going after the ball,” he said.
Thanks to Bean’s fill-in work, the Aggies got by without much contribution from Queta, who received a technical foul (for taunting) that counted as his fourth personal. He didn’t play in the last 12 minutes, but the Aggies built their lead to 21 points.
USU drew a season-high 8,160 fans Tuesday and is expecting a sellout crowd for Saturday’s game vs. No. 12 Nevada, a matchup that gained more significance after the Aggies’ performance against SDSU. Smith already is planning some new strategy, adding hand signals for more of USU’s plays as a concession to the crowd noise. That’s an adjustment he’s happy to make.