Las Vegas • It might have been the fresh haircut, the bounce in his step or the slight grin on his face. Whatever it was, it was evident Sam Merrill was enjoying the spotlight of the Mountain West Conference tournament. Or maybe he was relishing the chance to avenge Utah State’s regular-season-ending loss to New Mexico last Friday. Or some combination of the two.
By the end of the game, Merrill’s hair was mussed and his hop was gone, but the grin was still there, at least at the end. With 2:43 left and the game tied, he stepped to the top of the key and drained a 3 over the top of Keith McGee. It was the dagger in the Lobos’ heart as the Aggies held on to win a 75-70 quarterfinal nail-biter Thursday night at Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus.
Even in Vegas, the Aggies don’t need Lady Luck when Merrill’s on the court.
“Sam Merrill, Sam Merrill, Sam Merrill, I’m going to see this guy in my nightmares for a long time,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “He’s amazing. He should be in the NBA Draft. He kicked our ass. He kicked my ass. I wish him all the best. He played exceptional tonight.”
Merrill scored 29 points, including 18 in the second half, and was the undeniable motor that powered USU (24-8) into the semifinals. The Aggies will play the winner of Thursday’s late game between No. 3 Nevada and No. 11 Wyoming on Friday at 9:30 p.m. MST.
“Just trying to bring some poise and stay calm and do what we do,” said Merrill, a first-team all-conference pick who moved into second in career scoring at USU with 2,143 points.
The 6-foot-5 guard returned to USU after mulling a jump into the NBA mainly for this run, this shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament and making some noise his senior season. That run almost got cut short when the Lobos basically shut down Neemias Queta. Queta, the 7-foot sophomore center, did declare for the NBA draft last spring before also deciding to return to the Aggies for another postseason run. When the teams met a week ago, he tied with Merrill for the team-high 18 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. This time around, Queta scored eight points and had seven rebounds while getting into foul trouble early.
The Aggies were also trying to rally without Abel Porter, who started the game but played only 15 minutes after aggravating a back injury. USU coach Craig Smith said he tried to turn to Porter to take over ball-handling duties when Merrill found himself with four fouls midway through the second half but said he saw in Porter’s face he couldn’t go.
New Mexico (19-14) sensed the Aggies were in trouble and turned up the pressure.
“They smelled blood, there’s no doubt,” Smith said.
Smith eventually turned to senior Diogo Brito to play point. After some early miscues, he found his rhythm, scoring 15 points. The biggest of them came with a minute to play when he drained a 3 of his own that put the Aggies up for good, 73-70.
“Before that,” Brito said, “I was just basically watching that Sam Merrill show on the floor.”
Merrill scored nine points to lead USU to an early 20-7 run. Just like last Friday, though, the Aggies let the Lobos rally back. They tied it 33-all at the half behind sharpshooting by senior guard JaQuan Lyle, who finished with 20 points. UNM then went on to take its own 11-point lead in the second half, but it couldn’t hold up against a determined Merrill and company.
“He’s a great warrior,” Weir said, “and I couldn’t find a way to stop him when it mattered.”