It was the shot heard ‘round Logan. Quite probably the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history. Easily the greatest shot in Sam Merrill’s career. And it won the Aggies a berth in the NCAA Tournament, although that never came to pass due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The date: March 7. The location: Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Aggies are fighting tooth and nail against the San Diego State Aztecs, the No. 5 team in the country. The game is tied at 56. There’s about 25 seconds left in the game.
Merrill had just split a pair of free throws that would have given USU a one-point lead. Aztecs guard Malachi Flynn, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, had missed a step-back 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, setting up the sequence that would define not only Merrill’s career, but a 2019-20 Aggies season that had plenty of rocky moments.
The missed opportunity
Merrill finished his Aggies career as an 89.1% free-throw shooter — a school record. In his four years at Utah State, Merrill had never missed a free throw with less than a minute to go in a game. Ever. That is, until the MW tournament championship game against SDSU.
Before he went to the line with the Aggies down 56-55 with 39.4 seconds remaining, Merrill had made 54 straight free throws with under a minute left. Merrill missed the first, made the second, tying the game at 56.
Everyone on the team was aware of the streak. When they saw Merrill miss, some were in a state of bewilderment. Even the announcer on the CBS broadcast mentioned it. “Wow. That is not something you see very often,” he said.
Kyle Cottam, USU sports information director for basketball: It’s my note. I’ve tracked his free throws under a minute. In fact, every guy on our roster, I’ve tracked their free throws under a minute in their career. So I knew his numbers as he was taking that free throw.
Abel Porter, former Aggies guard: We all know the stat about Sam and his free throws. We try not to talk about it that much, about how he hasn’t missed a free throw under a minute in his whole career. And of course the one time he does is in the Mountain West championship game. I was literally just like laughing in my head, like, “Of course this is happening right now.”
Diogo Brito, former Aggies guard: I started laughing, to be honest.
Cottam: I leaned over to my right, which was away from the bench, when Sam missed the free throw. I leaned over the associate commissioner for the Mountain West and the head of security at Thomas & Mack and said, “That’s the first free throw he’s ever missed under a minute in his entire career.” And my SID brain was like, “Dang it, Sam, you ruined my note. Thanks for that.”
Justin Bean, Aggies forward: I think when he missed that, we were all pretty shocked.
Alphonso Anderson, Aggies forward: That was nerve wracking because at the end of the game, every little thing matters.
Aggies coach Craig Smith installed a set play about halfway through the MW tournament. In basketball parlance, it’s called “1-4 flat,” which means one player has the ball in the middle of the court while his four teammates set up in a straight line across the baseline. The play is designed for the one player to go 1-on-1 against his defender and make something happen.
That player was Merrill, and he had found success in that set. After Flynn missed the shot and Merrill secured the rebound, Smith didn’t call a timeout, motioning instead for “1-4 flat.” But even before he did, his players on the floor were already preparing for it.
Porter: I remember when we got the rebound, I never thought that Coach Smith was going to call a timeout. And I know that he was probably thinking, “Do I call a timeout or not?” But I think all of us just kind of had the same feeling that Sam needed the ball.
Bean: I already knew what coach was going to call, so I literally just started jogging down and getting ready to go to the short corner with [center Neemias Queta].
Sam Merrill, former Aggies guard: I knew we were just going to let me go 1-on-1, which I was grateful that coach let me do that. In a championship game, they might not call a foul, and the refs had let us play with a well-officiated game. So if I tried to go the basket, there may be contact and no foul.
Brito: It was crazy because we ran that set, the 1-4 flat. It’s not a set, it’s just Sam go make a play. We ran it in the tournament for the first time and scored I think 100% on the possessions that we did it.
Smith: It was very successful all weekend.
‘I didn’t know what he was going to do’
The seconds before Merrill actually took the shot sent his teammates into a tailspin. Was he going to the basket? Was he taking a shot?
All the while, the clock is ticking.
Anderson: It felt like it was in slow motion. He’s sitting there dribbling. You know he’s sizing it up for a shot. I didn’t know if he was going to shoot the 3 or go to the rim because it’s a tie game — anything could have won it.
Porter: As I saw him dribbling up there, in my head, I didn’t know what he was going to do. I didn’t know what shot he was going to take.
Cottam: Whenever I’m sitting down at the table, I always put my hands in front of my face — like in front of my mouth — so people can’t see if I’m screaming, yelling at officials or whatever else. I remember sitting there — again, hands in front of my mouth — saying “C’mon Sam. C’mon Sam. C’mon Sam.”
Porter: As I’m sitting there watching him, I’m running through it in my head. Like, OK, kind of have to get back to your right hand, like a right-handed pull-up. I think that that’s where he could maybe hit a shot. He just kept drifting left and I was like, “Where is he going? He’s drifting away from the hoop.”
Merrill: I had a move and vision that I was going to do.
Porter: He really didn’t make any move. I know he says he had a move planned in his head. I don’t know how true that is. I don’t know if I believe him.
Merrill: The guy that was guarding me was a couple of inches shorter than me. So I knew I was going to able to get a shot whenever I wanted.
The one shot to win it all
Then the moment finally came.
Merrill had made big shots before, even as recently as that very tournament run. His teammates were accustomed to watching Merrill pull up from beyond the 3-point line and swish them through.
But the one against the Aztecs was different. The game was tied, so if he had missed, the worst that could have happened was overtime. But Merrill had played every minute of the game and struggled in the first half. There’s no telling how much energy he could’ve mustered in overtime.
So in a way, he had to make that shot — for personal redemption after missing the free throw, for this team, for basketball glory. But it wasn’t easy. Aztecs guard KJ Feagin defended him well, and he launched it from far beyond the 3-point line.
None of it mattered.
Porter: I thought he was going to get an easier shot than that. I don’t know what he was doing. I don’t know why he decided to take the toughest shot possible in the moment.
Nate Jarvis, USU team manager: That thing was deep.
Cottam: That’s a tough shot. But he was feeling it.
Queta: The way he was playing until that point, I wasn’t concerned because he was playing good. Once you play good, that’s a good shot, especially for Sam.
Merrill shot 50% in the second half, including 4 of 7 from the 3-point line.
Merrill: It was a little deeper than I realized, but I got the shot that I wanted and it went in.
Feagin: I felt like up until the release of the shot, I was right there on every move. But props to him for making a good shot.
SDSU coach Brian Dutcher: Sam Merrill made a really hard shot over great defense.
Merrill called for a foul as the shot went in and he picked himself off the ground.
Bean: I’ll always remember that shot.
Smith: It became an iconic moment. It’ll be a shot that’s remembered forever for all Aggie fans. It has to go down as one of the greatest shots in the history of the Mountain West Conference.
Bean: I just thought I was in a movie, to be honest. That’s honestly what it felt like when the shot went in.