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Brad Rock: USU's Morrill not letting up as he comes down the stretch

LOGAN — Stew Morrill is winding down, he just doesn’t know it yet. Three more regular-season games, a conference tournament appearance and that might be it. All those undiscovered and lightly recruited players, all those drives up Sardine Canyon on the way home from the coast, finished. Eighteen 20-win seasons.

Morrill flew by career win No. 400 at USU, last week, beating Fresno State. With a 17-10 record after Tuesday’s 83-65 win over UNLV, he stands to finish above .500 for the 28th time in 29 years as a head coach.

So with three games left in the regular season, it’s a pertinent question to ask: Is Morrill on automatic pilot?

“No,” said forward David Collette. “Any one of us will tell you he has not let up whatsoever. And he lets us know that every day. He’s still here. He’s not done until he’s done.”

It could have been any game, during any season, for Morrill in the first half. The lead toggled from team to team. Morrill took it in stride, but unhappily. He behaved a lot like the Stew who has been at USU since 1999. It began with his arms calmly folded behind his back, then he put them in his pockets. Soon he was speaking in a referee’s ear, arguing a call, later shaking his head and throwing up an arm in protest.

By the end of the half, he was waving his arms to get players down court quickly, tie loosened, looking annoyed every time someone missed a free throw.

This wasn’t getting easier.

“I was not happy at half,” Morrill said.

In the second half, he started looking at the refs as though they were loony.

With a 55-44 lead, things started looking safe, but UNLV rapidly cut the lead to two. Standing as tall as any of his players, Morrill called a timeout, yelling red-faced, hoping to shake his team out of its doldrums.

USU responded with seven unanswered points.

Big Stew still had his stuff.

Tuesday’s game was a prime chance to see just how far Morrill can take a team picked to finish 10th in the Mountain West Conference. The Aggies are now tied for fourth. It’s one thing to defend your status as a preseason favorite, but another to far outstrip anyone’s expectations.

Morrill has done it many years, including this, with only fair talent and modest size. He has filled it with smaller-program players, returned LDS missionaries and locals that often didn’t get invited elsewhere instate.

Although UNLV is a modest 15-13, it posed a significant problem. The Rebels are athletic and full of potential. They won five of their previous eight games, with the three losses by a combined seven points.

The Aggies sent them home to Vegas flat busted.

So is this getting easier?

“No,” Morrill said. “It hasn’t changed for me. I think I’ll only realize I’m done when the last game is over.”

If he had put the car on cruise control down the stretch, this season, Morrill couldn’t have been blamed. After three decades as a head coach, why not just take his bows and exit, stage left? He has nothing to prove. He has won conference coach of the year five times since moving to Logan. His teams win 90 percent of the time at home. No wonder that even on a middlin’ season, the Spectrum crowd still chants throughout the game.

That has been a likable part about Morrill. He’s as big as Old Main, and after losses can be as gruff as a boar. But it wasn’t a worry on Tuesday. Still, he complained afterward that “the first half we were playing really good offense, and we were behind at halftime. We just couldn’t get any stops.”

You wouldn’t know a long vacation awaits him. He wasn’t looking past Saturday’s game at Air Force. His final home game — barring a postseason appearance — will be March 7 against Colorado State, the same school he left 16 years ago to come to Logan.

But on Tuesday that didn’t seem so long ago. Big Stew was all business, which is how it will stay. When it all ends, someone else might have to stick around to turn out the lights.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged