Las Vegas • Remember this: Never underestimate Sam Merrill.
Merrill didn’t slay one-loss San Diego State all by himself. He couldn’t have. But the senior guard more than earned the chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” that the Hurd hurled from the stands Saturday afternoon when his Utah State team dug itself out of the deepest of holes to defend its Mountain West Conference men’s basketball championship title with a 59-56 win over the Aztecs.
“I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life,” Merrill said while accepting the official tournament MVP trophy. He is believed to be the first athlete in MWC history to win back-to-back tournament MVP awards.
At the very minimum, the Aggies needed a strong showing Saturday to prove to the NCAA selection committee that they deserve an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. To really seal the deal, they would have been well served to turn in a truly awesome performance — one that committee members will be able to remember a week from now, even through the blur of at least 19 upcoming conference tournaments and dozens of high-intensity games.
Thanks to a yeoman’s effort by Merrill, they did that and more. In a shot only rivaled, Merrill said, by a half-court shot he made as a seventh-grader, he drained a long-bomb 3-pointer over the suction-cup defense of KJ Feagin with 2 seconds left to break the tie and seal the win. It rendered the hand-wringing over the Aggies’ chances of being selected to the Big Dance moot. The tournament title punched USU’s ticket.
That was Merrill’s intent all along.
“I know coach says he doesn’t pay attention to bracketology, but I do,” he said. “And I knew the cards were stacked against us. And this morning, getting prepared for the game, I did not want to play in the NIT. “
Still, USU almost couldn’t have made it harder on itself.
After coming out guns-a-blazing, the Aggies went cold. More than cold, they went sub-zero. Over a span of 12 minutes, 55 seconds — remember, there are 20 minutes in a half — they didn’t score a single point from the field. Their only points during that stretch came from free throws, of which they made four of five. The Aztecs didn’t shoot especially well either, but they still built a 16-point lead, the volume of their cheering section growing with every score.
Merrill, as has become habit, found a way to quiet them.
He broke the ice with a fadeaway jumper with 2:11 to play and then went on to score as many baskets in the next minute as the entire Aggies team had scored in the rest of the half.
SDSU coach Brian Dutcher explained the swing this way: “Sam Merrill decided to take over the game. That’s it.”
Yet as a testament to USU’s defense, or as a testament to the Aztecs’ own troubles with their shooting touch, depending on the perspective, the game never felt completely out of reach for the Aggies. And, with Diego Brito finally connecting at the buzzer for his first score of the night, USU entered the half down just 29-21.
A couple of fast and furious rallies kept the game interesting in the second half. With 39 seconds left and USU trailing by a point, Merrill hit one of two free throws — what he said was his first career miss at the line with a minute or less left — to tie up the game. Overtime appeared inevitable.
Merrill didn’t see it that way.
“Big-time players make big-time plays,” coach Craig Smith said, “and he has a will to win. That’s what great players do.”
Merrill has said all season he wanted to return to the NCAA Tournament to take care of unfinished business after the Aggies fell in the first round to Washington last year. His heavily guarded 3, his game-leading 27th point of the night, did just that. Malachi Flynn, the MWC Player of the Year, finished with a team-high 16 points after his last-second attempt to tie it up flew off target.
When asked if that would be the best shot of his career, Merrill said not if he has his way.
“I hope there’s a few more,” he said.
UTAH STATE 59, SAN DIEGO STATE 56
• Sam Merrill, two games after causing New Mexico coach Paul Weir to call him “amazing,” stepped up again for the Aggies. His game-clinching 3-pointer with 6 seconds left gave him 27 points and the tournament MVP trophy
• With the win, its second straight MWC Tournament championship, Utah State became the first team to secure a spot into the NCAA Division I Tournament
• Neemias Queta, who scored 15 points with eight rebounds vs. SDSU, was also named to the all-tournament team, as was SDSU’s Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin and Wyoming freshman Kwane Marble III
• USU got key minutes from Justin Bean, who had 12 rebounds; Alphonso Anderson, who scored eight points; and Abel Porter, who played 25 minutes despite a back injury that has nagged him all tournament and finished with a +10 rating