Las Vegas • After turning the ball over at an alarming rate in Thursday’s Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinal game against New Mexico, Utah State picked the perfect time to finally turn on its comeback.
The Aggies overcame an eight-point deficit in the second half and a whopping 24 turnovers in the face of the Lobos’ relentless defensive pressure to thwart New Mexico’s upset bid 91-83 at Thomas & Mack Center to move into Friday’s semifinals.
The win sends USU (26-6) into the MW’s Final Four against the winner of the late Fresno State-Air Force game, but more importantly it probably kept the Aggies off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“We have one goal for this weekend and that’s to win the whole thing,” said USU junior Sam Merrill, who led the Aggies with 23 points and nine assists but didn't want to proclaim they punched their ticket to the Big Dance. “It wasn’t pretty, but we are one step closer.”
The Aggies won the game at the free-throw line, making 35 of 45 freebies, which probably surprised Merrill when he looked at the stat sheet because he said it felt like Utah State was on defense the entire game.
“If this was a football game, they would have dominated time of possession,” he surmised, a reference that drew a pat on the back from USU coach Craig Smith in the postgame news conference.
Justin Bean was USU’s other hero. The walk-on from Oklahoma posted 14 points and 15 rebounds, both career-highs, and helped the Aggies break the press in the second half.
It got so bad in the first half that “it felt like we had 35, 40 turnovers,” Merrill said.
The Lobos (14-18) had a 52-44 lead after consecutive 3-pointers by Carlton Bragg and Anthony Mathis completed a 9-3 run.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Smith said.
Then it was USU’s turn for a run, which was spurred by a technical foul called on UNM coach Paul Weir.
He crossed half court to protest an out-of-bounds call and was hit with the 'T' by referee Bob Staffen, who really didn’t have a choice. Weir said he thought the ball went off USU’s Neemias Queta and figured he could walk out that far because a timeout had been called.
“I wasn’t trying to get one; I just voiced my displeasure,” he said, later adding that plays the Lobos failed to make in the final two minutes “were more pivotal.”
Merrill hit the technical free throws — he was 11 of 12 from the line — and Diego Brito followed with a putback.
Momentum had clearly shifted.
“It is such a fine line,” said USU’s Smith, when asked about the swing. “It is amazing how quickly things can change in college basketball.”
USU eventually caught the Lobos at 57 apiece with a 9-3 run, and stopped turning the ball over. Only two of the 24 turnovers were committed in the final eight minutes.
“We took our foot off the gas at the time when we needed to put the pedal to the metal,” Weir said.
Abel Porter’s three-point play gave the Aggies a 79-78 lead with just over three minutes remaining, and Brito followed with a 3-pointer to push the advantage to four. USU made its free throws to complete a 3-0 season sweep of New Mexico.
“Guys in the huddle kept saying, we gotta find a way to win,” Smith said.
Neither team led by more than three in an evenly played first half, and neither led by more than eight in the game.
“Utah State played a helluva game,” said UNM’s Dane Kuiper. “They made their shots at the end. They deserved to win.”