Las Vegas • Eight minutes in the first half on Friday night made all the difference, and it did not favor the Aggies.
Utah State’s Mountain West Tournament run came to an end at the hands of third-seeded New Mexico in an 83-68 semifinal loss. Sophomore guard Sam Merrill led a quartet of Aggies with 10 points or more. Merrill scored 17, while Koby McEwen (16 points), Julion Pearre (13 points) and Quinn Taylor (10 points) rounded out the scoring leaders.
The Aggies played without junior guard DeAngelo Isby, who coach Tim Duryea said left the team that morning for personal reasons.
“We’re a pretty good offensive team in the half-court,” Duryea said. “[New Mexico] did a great job of not letting us execute. We had a seven- or eight-minute stretch there where we probably played about as badly as we could play, and we just could not overcome that stretch.”
With top-seed and defending tournament champion Nevada having lost the early semifinal to San Diego State, it looked a like an opportunity for the Aggies to immerse themselves in March Madness.
Instead the Aggies, who made their first appearance in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals since joining the conference, fell short.
The Lobos’ defensive intensity seemed to increase throughout the first half, something coach Paul Weir demanded in rather loud, colorful language from the sideline in the first half when the Aggies made early shots without much duress.
“It started with one turnover and then we just got sped up,” Merrill said. “That’s exactly what they want you to do, and that’s what you can’t do. Once you get sped up and have a couple turnovers, it all turns mental. That was our issue. We had probably four or five turnovers in a row that had nothing really to do with their pressure, but we got so sped up and we were so flustered mentally that we just fell apart for that stretch.”
The Aggies went more than eight minutes without a field goal until McEwen’s pull-up jumper stopped the drought and made the score 36-25 with 1:38 left. The Aggies trailed 37-25 at halftime, having led 22-17 earlier.
Merrill scored 10 of the team’s first 22 points and went 3 of 5 shooting in the first half. However, the Aggies finished the half having shot 35 percent and committed as many turnovers as they made baskets (nine).
“Especially me being the point guard, I’ve got to do a better job of just controlling the tempo of the game,” McEwen said. “A lot of that eight-minute stretch I can put on myself, just trying to control the offense and handling the pressure. I’ve got to do a better job of that.”
The Lobos scored the first eight points and outscored the Aggies 16-3 in the opening minutes of the second half to take a 53-30 lead as Makuach Maluach cut through the paint, received a pass and threw down a one-handed dunk with 15:41 remaining, essentially putting the Aggies’ tournament hopes to rest.
Utah State pulled within nine points with less than two minutes remaining, but it was not able to get any closer.
Duryea said the program has been contacted about playing in a postseason tournament, though he could not give details. It’s likely the Aggies could have at least one more game left this season.