Down 16 points with three minutes left in the first half to San Diego State (30-1) — the No. 5 team in the country — it seemed as if Utah State was going to have to agonizingly wait to see if they would reach the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team with eight days to go before Selection Sunday.

Luckily for the Aggies, they won’t have to sweat it out after all.

Clawing back from the deficit led by last season’s Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill, the Aggies (26-8, 12-6 MW) started the second half on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to one, 29-28.

The Aztecs responded with a run of their own to stretch the lead back to 37-30, until back-to-back Alphonso Anderson three-pointers stopped SDSU’s momentum.

It was a back-and-forth affair for the rest of the game, with Utah State taking a 51-47 lead with 6:33 to go, before the Aztecs jumped in front 56-55 with just over a minute left.

But much like they did all season — despite the injuries and the struggle to start conference play — the Aggies stayed in it, with Merrill making one of two free throws to tie the game at 56 with 39 seconds left in the contest.

San Diego State had a chance to take the lead, but a missed shot by Malachi Flynn gave the Aggies the ball with under 30 seconds to go.

Like he has done throughout his career at Utah State, Merrill delivered yet another clutch basket. While dribbling the ball near midcourt, the seconds ticked down as Merrill waited to make his move. With just over five seconds to go in the game, Merrill made his move with a step-back 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to give the Aggies a 59-56 lead. The Aztecs had a shot to tie the game from halfcourt, however, the ball bounced in and out to give the Aggies their second consecutive Mountain West Tournament title as well as another ticket to the NCAA Tournament.


For the second straight year, senior Sam Merrill was named Mountain West Tournament MVP, the first time in conference history a player has won the award in back-to-back seasons. He dropped 29, 27 and 27 points in Utah State’s three games in the tournament. Sophomore center Neemias Queta was also named to the all-tournament team for the second time in a row.

Super Sam

After his clutch game-winner to send the Aggies to March Madness, Sam Merrill continued to make his case as the greatest player in school history, all while putting Utah State basketball back on the map.

Scoring 83 points in the Mountain West Tournament, Merrill has now tallied 2,197 points in his Aggie career, second on the school’s all-time scoring list.

Along with back-to-back Mountain West Tournament MVP awards, Merril was named the 2018-19 Mountain West Player of the Year and an Honorable Mention All-American by the AP and a third-team selection by Stadium. A two-time first team all-conference selection (2019 and 2020), Merrill was also named Third Team All-Mountain West as a sophomore and was a USBWA All-District VIII and NABC First Team All-District 17 selection for his junior season.

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Not only has he climbed in the record books of both the school and the conference and taken home numerous individual accolades, Merrill has helped right the ship under second-year head coach Craig Smith after the Aggies suffered dismal performances under Tim Duryea.

Merrill, Smith, Queta and others have helped the Aggies claim a Mountain West regular season title, back-to-back conference tournament titles and reach consecutive NCAA Tournaments, going 54-15 over the last two seasons.

The conference regular season title in 2018-19 was Utah State’s first since 2010-11, as was the conference tournament title and NCAA bid. The 28 wins that season was also the most since 2010-11, and the Aggies No. 25 final national ranking was its first since that same campaign.. The two straight tournament titles gives Utah State their first back-to-back titles since the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons when they played in the Big West Conference.

Simply put, Sam Merrill has helped the Aggie program return to relevance and into the spotlight during his historic four-year run in Logan.

Up next

With the automatic bid, Utah State will wait to find out its seed and first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, March 15. The selection show will be broadcast on CBS at 4 p.m. MT.

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