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Utah State basketball’s 57-45 win over San Diego State has implications for the near future

The Utah State Aggies have now won nine consecutive games, but have an upcoming schedule replete with winning teams.

Utah State guard Sean Bairstow (2) drives to the basket as San Diego State guard Trey Pulliam defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

Logan • San Diego State is a formidable opponent. So much so that the Utah State Aggies needed a dagger 3-pointer from Sam Merrill to beat the Aztecs in last year’s Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game.

This year, the personnel is somewhat different for both teams, but the rivalry remains. Thursday night’s 57-45 win over San Diego State was what Aggies coach Craig Smith called “a rock fight.”

The Aggies should scour Logan for many more rocks.

Thursday’s game was not only the first of two consecutive against the Aztecs — the second is at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday — but also the start of a difficult stretch that features MWC teams with winning records overall. After Saturday, Utah State faces Colorado State, the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, and Fresno State. Those three teams have a combined 22-10 record overall.

And that’s not even mentioning the Idaho two-step that looms in mid-February against the undefeated Boise State Broncos.

So if there was ever a time for the Aggies to show the conference what they’re made of, beating the Aztecs was a good start.

“We’re a tough, resilient team and we play to win,” junior guard Brock Miller said when asked what message Thursday’s win sent to the conference. “We’re going to bring it every single night and we’re going to play Aggie basketball.”

San Diego State guard Trey Pulliam (4) passes the ball as Utah State guard Marco Anthony (44) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

The term “Aggie basketball” means something different without Merrill, who now plays for the Milwaukee bucks. There were some question marks when the season started surrounding whether the likes of Miller, junior forward Justin Bean and junior center Neemias Queta could put USU on their backs and lead it to another postseason run.

In what is now a nine-game winning streak after Thursday, those three have mostly silenced those questions. That much is especially true for Queta, who spent the coronavirus hiatus in Logan to work on this game instead of traveling home to Portugal and improved dramatically because of it.

Down the stretch against San Diego State, Queta played the closer’s role. He scored twice at the rim, assisted Miller on a 3-pointer and grabbed a key offensive rebound.

Queta’s stat line against the Aztecs — 14 points and 16 rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting — is the kind of production the Aggies will need in order to prevail in the gauntlet of games that awaits them.

“[Queta] is the guy and we all know that,” Miller said. “Down the stretch, he’s our guy for sure.”

It’s been a while since Utah State found itself in a close game. The last time it won by a margin less than epic proportions was a 13-point margin over Northern Colorado on Dec. 18. There were six games between then and Thursday, won by an average of 33.3 points.

Smith said his team’s defense is what stood out to him against the Aztecs, and that could be the key to the upcoming stretch of games against winning teams.

“I was able to see it against a really good team — just the grittiness that we have, our ability to play connected,” Smith said of USU’s defense.

Smith also said he’s starting to get a good understanding of what he can expect from some of his younger players on the roster.

Miller also pointed to Utah State’s defense as what will help it moving forward. The Aggies held the Aztecs to their lowest scoring output of the season and just 31.5% shooting for the game.

“At the end of the day, defensively I think what we can learn from this is that when it comes down to the wire, we can really rely on our defense to be able to create offense,” Miller said.

Suffice it to say that moving forward, the Aggies don’t plan on just bringing a basketball to future rock fights.

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