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Utah State beats Boise State 70-61, pulls even with Broncos in MWC basketball race

Boise State forward RJ Williams (23) knocks the ball out of the hands of Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Logan • The Utah State men’s basketball team is still in the Mountain West Conference hunt.

The Aggies beat the Boise State Broncos 70–61 Saturday at the Spectrum. USU sophomore center Neemias Queta led the way with 21 points and eight rebounds. He also made 11 of 14 shots from the free-throw line.

Senior guard Sam Merrill was in foul trouble all night, but contributed 17 points.

Beating the Boise State Broncos didn’t just give the Utah State men’s basketball team its fifth win in the last six games and second straight. It also put the Aggies in better position within the Mountain West Conference with just five games remaining in the regular season.

With the win, the Aggies pulled even with the Broncos in the conference standings at 8-5, putting them just a half-game behind 8-4 Colorado State, which is second in the Mountain West.

Both Nevada and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas won their games Saturday, putting them at fourth and fifth in the conference, respectively. USU, UNLV, Nevada and now Boise State all have five MWC losses.

Utah State is on the tail end of a crucial three-game stretch that could determine its chances at an at-large bid to this year’s NCAA Tournament. It took care of business Wednesday against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and continued it against Boise State.

“This was a big week for the Aggies,” coach Craig Smith said. “We had to take care of business at home. And when you win two in a week, you can really jump the standings, so to speak.”

The game was tight down the stretch, which mirrored the last time the two teams faced off. That Jan. 18 contest ended in an five-point overtime loss for the Aggies on the road.

“Just being able to make plays on the offensive end whenever we needed it and make stops on the defense end when we needed it,” Queta said of the difference between Saturday’s game and the one in January.

Free-throw shooting made the difference down the stretch. Diogo Brito and Merrill each made a pair with under minute left, and Queta made four in a row over the final two minutes to keep Boise State at bay.

Queta’s first two came after the Broncos were called for a flagrant foul with 30 seconds remaining, giving the Aggies a 64-61 lead. He also made two free throws for a 62-59 lead.

The Broncos missed a 3-pointer, got the offensive rebound and their luck at the rim, but Queta was there for the block. Riley Abercrombie scored with 1:01 left, putting the score at 62-61 in favor of USU.

Utah State led 60-57 with 3:11 left in the game. Alex Hobbs of the Broncos scored to cut their deficit to one, and had an opportunity to take the lead on a transition layup after Queta missed one of his own. But Hobbs missed the go-ahead bucket.

Merrill picked up his fourth foul just 40 seconds into the second half on an offensive foul, forcing him to sit. The Aggies led by 11 at that point.

With Merrill out of the picture, the Broncos went on a mini-run, cutting their deficit from 11 to six. But the Aggies answered in emphatic fashion. Queta rejected a Boise State shot, setting up a layup by senior guard Abel Porter.

On USU’s next possession, Brito received a lead pass and dunked the ball while getting fouled. His free throw gave the Aggies a 42-31 lead with 15:01 left in the game.

Boise State promptly went on a 9-0 run, culminated by a difficult lefty layup in traffic by Marcus Dickinson. The Aggies missed five consecutive shots and were scoreless for three and a half minutes during that stretch.

The Aggies started their run earlier than in recent games. Leading 6-5 early on, Utah State went on a 12-2 run to open an 11-point lead midway through the first half. For the rest of the half, the Aggies didn’t sweat the score stuff. They led by double digits for virtually the rest of the half.

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