Logan • Every game for the rest of the season for the Utah State basketball team feels like it has Mountain West Conference implications.
Entering Wednesday night’s game against UNLV, the Aggies sat sixth in the conference. The Rebels, meanwhile, sat just one place above them.
With the middle of the conference so tight — and a game against third-place Boise State on Saturday — every game matters in Utah State’s quest to win another conference championship, which appears bleaker by the week.
But the Aggies (18-7, 7-5 Mountain West) helped themselves in a big way with a 69-54 win over UNLV (11-13, 6-5 MWC). It was USU’s fourth win in the last five games, and UNLV’s fourth consecutive loss.
Utah State is now just one game back of Boise State (8-4 MWC) in the Mountain West.
Sophomore center Neemias Queta led the Aggies with 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. Senior guard Sam Merrill wasn’t far behind with his 20 points, three assists and two rebounds.
It was another example of what’s happened to the Aggies lately. After a lackluster and overall disappointing first-half effort, they found a way to make enough shots at the right time to open up the game.
Merrill said the ball stuck a little too much in the first half, and moving it more was one of the messages at halftime. He added the Aggies also needed to continue their strong defense, which held UNLV to 29 points.
Merrill helped create just enough separation for the Aggies late in the game. After he fell to ground and got up with a limp, he drained a contested 3-pointer at the top the of the key. It was his second 3-pointer in what amounted to a 14-1 run. Merrill had eight of those points.
“He missed some clean looks, I thought, early — and even early in the second half,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said of Merrill. “But he certainly made a couple big ones when we were able to separate.”
Diego Brito dunked the ball, got fouled and made the free throw with less than two minutes remaining, putting the Aggies up 16 and safe from a possible rebellion.
The Aggies trailed by eight after turning the ball over off a defensive rebound and UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton made a layup. USU used a 13-6 run to pull within 41-40 with less than 13 minutes left in the game.
Merrill made four consecutive free throws to give the Aggies a 46-44 lead midway through the second half. Queta immediately followed with an emphatic two-handed dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy and put a cherry on top of an 8-0 run.
Elijah Mitrou-Long stole the ball and scored in transition in a one-on-two situation, tying the game at 48. Merrill, though, buried an open 3-pointer from the left wing to retake the lead.
Despite shooting better than the Rebels for the first 10 minutes of the first half, the Aggies held only a two-point lead. A scoring drought of more than four minutes contributed to that.
UNLV beat Utah State last month by a wide margin. But it happened away from the Spectrum. With Wednesday’s win, the Aggies continued their dominance at home.
Hamilton led the Rebels with 15 points and seven rebounds.