Las Vegas • As a ninth-grader, Sam Merrill joined his family at Orleans Arena eight years ago when Utah State won the Western Athletic Conference championship game and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
Merrill remembers being angry the next day when the Aggies received only a No. 12 seed, while never imagining it would take so long for USU to reach the NCAA level again. He helped make it happen Saturday in a 64-57 victory over San Diego State for the Mountain West title at the Thomas & Mack Center, a few miles east of Orleans Arena on Tropicana Avenue.
“It’s been awhile for Utah State,” Merrill said. “And as someone who grew up … watching Utah State go to the [NCAA] Tournament and win conference championships, it means the world to me. And it means the world to us as a team.”
All the projections say the Aggies can expect a much higher seed than No. 12 on Selection Sunday after their three-day showing in Las Vegas, where Merrill became the tournament MVP. He scored 23, 22 and 24 points against New Mexico, Fresno State and SDSU.
The Aztecs made it tough for him again, as they did Feb. 26 in Logan. Merrill went 1 of 9 from 3-point range in each game. But he managed to get to the free-throw line, going 11 of 12, and his teammates did a lot of good work at both ends of the court. Freshman center Neemias Queta joined Merrill on the all-tournament after delivering 17 points and eight rebounds. Queta and guard Abel Porter combined for 17 straight USU points after Merrill started the game with a shot in the lane.
The Aggies have come a long way in Merrill's junior season, the first year for coach Craig Smith. Last March, having scored 28 points in an MW quarterfinal upset of Boise State, Merrill sat on the postgame interview stage and said, “It’s exciting, but it’s only the quarterfinals. … I didn’t grow up wanting to win quarterfinal games.”
New Mexico beat the Aggies the next night, though. “Compared to how I felt after after the New Mexico game last year in the semifinals, “ he said Saturday, “I would say sitting right here definitely feels much better, for sure.”
Same stage, new scene. Merrill wore a championship T-shirt and cap, turned backward, as he reflected on USU’s accomplishment. “I’m still in disbelief," he said.