Las Vegas • Utah State guard Sam Merrill’s 3-pointer will be remembered as the clinching shot of the Aggies’ quarterfinal victory in the Mountain West basketball tournament Thursday night, even after a bunch of crazy stuff that followed it.
The No. 7-seeded Aggies held on for a 78-75 win over Boise State, although their three possessions in the last 24 seconds netted only one point as coach Tim Duryea watched “in disbelief,” he said.
This part is true: Having advanced to the semifinals for the first time in five annual attempts at this stage of the MW event, USU will meet the New Mexico-Wyoming winner Friday (9:30 p.m. MST).
“It’s exciting,” Merrill said, “but it’s only the quarterfinals. … I didn’t grow up wanting to win quarterfinal games.”
Even so, this is a breakthrough for Duryea’s program in his third season. The Aggies faded in late February with four straight defeats, including losses to Air Force and San Jose State, raising some questions about his job status. The Aggies (17-16) have responded with a win over UNLV to close the regular season and rallied from 15 and 13 points down in first halves vs. Colorado State and Boise State in the tournament.
His players have validated Duryea’s reading that “they were not done yet,” as of last week. And they just might stay in Las Vegas through Saturday.
Merrill once led Bountiful High School to a state championship with performances resembling the one he delivered Thursday. The sophomore scored 28 points, topped by his turning, straightaway 3-pointer that made it 77-73 with 32.4 seconds left after Duryea called a play for him to shoot or drive.
“I’ve taken that shot a million times,” Merrill said, “and made it quite a few times.”
That’s when things got interesting for Merrill and his teammates. Try to follow along for an adventurous 24 seconds of basketball:
Boise State’s Zach Haney made a rebound basket. Merrill then threw a poor inbounds pass, giving the Broncos the ball. Merrill stole it back, only to have USU’s Koby McEwen get tied up while hoping to draw a foul; Boise State owned the possession arrow.
After the Broncos’ Chandler Hutchison missed a jumper, McEwen rebounded the ball and made 1 of 2 free throws with 7.6 seconds left. That was just enough time for Hutchison to get a good look from the 3-point line, but his shot hit the front rim and USU escaped.
So ended a night when Hutchison, one of the conference’s top players, scored only 14 points and missed a free throw in the last minute of a tie game. Lexus Williams led Boise State (23-8) with 24 points.
McEwen, who said, “The best players gotta play the best” in tournaments, also was held to 14, but he twice delivered a tying 3-pointer in the game’s last six minutes.
Dwayne Brown Jr. added 10 points for USU and Julion Pearre scored nine. Pearre’s seven 3-pointers in two tournament games have come after he made only six of them during an injury-plagued regular season.
USU came through in the end, just as happened last month against Boise State in Logan. That five-point victory followed a four-point loss in Boise in January, where the Aggies led by nine points midway through the second half. That’s why beating UNLV last weekend was vital, moving USU into Boise State’s side of the bracket.
The Aggies were confident about this matchup, and they remained poised even after falling behind by 13 late in the first half. Merrill scored 10 straight points early in the second half, and McEwen’s jumper gave the Aggies their first lead of 55-54. USU would lose the lead three times, before regaining it for good.