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Utah State doesn’t have enough firepower to hand San Diego State its first loss, loses to Aztecs 77-68

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San Diego State guard Malachi Flynn, right, shoots as Utah State guard Brock Miller defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Logan.

Eli Lucero, AP

LOGAN — The surprise team of the Mountain West from last season wasn’t able to stop the surprise team of this season Saturday night at the Spectrum.

No. 13 San Diego State maintained its unblemished record and the longest winning streak in the country with a 77-68 victory over Utah State. The first-place Aztecs (4-0 in the Mountain West, 15-0 overall) remain one of just two unbeaten teams in the nation along with Auburn (13-0), who beat Mississippi State earlier in the day.

“They’re good. They’re really, really good. They made a lot of big-time plays, and made a lot of plays late in the clock,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said.

Combined with Wednesday’s 70-53 loss at UNLV, the Aggies (2-2, 13-4) have now lost back-to-back games for the first time in Smith’s two seasons at Utah State. 

Sam Merrill led the way for the Aggies with 26 points despite having an off night shooting, going just 3-for-12 from 3-point range and 8-for-21 overall. Utah State center Neemias Queta, who sat out the last couple of games after injuring his knee in USU’s win over Florida on Dec. 21, started his first home game of the season and finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes. 

Even though San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah didn’t make the trip due to a respiratory ailment, the Aggies still struggled offensively even without the 6-foot-10 defensive force filling up the lane for the Aztecs. Utah State shot just 43% as a team and went 6-for-23 from 3-point range.

“I’m proud of our effort. I thought we played our tails off. Missed some good looks. Things just didn’t fall,” Smith said.

San Diego State shot 51% for the game and had four players end up in double figures, including Malachi Flynn (22 points) and Matt Mitchell (19 points).

“It’s certainly going to be hard to beat a quality team like that when they shoot 50.9% for the game. And then we had some self-inflicted things, as well. In the first half, we go 5 for 10 from the free-throw line, plus we missed a front end. And we’re one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, and sometimes those things happen,” Smith said.

After surrendering a 3-pointer to SDSU’s KJ Feagin just 19 seconds into the game, the Aggies rallied back early to take a one-point lead on two occasions in the first six minutes. But that was as good as it got in the first half for the home team, as the Aztecs all but shut down USU’s offense for long stretches of time. 

A 3-pointer by Sean Bairstow tied the game at 11-11 with 12:10 left, but San Diego State held the Aggies without a field goal for more than five minutes while pulling away by a 21-12 margin. Utah State’s deficit reached as many as 11 points in the first half before the Aggies managed to slow cut into SDSU’s lead over the final two minutes, eventually getting to within 34-27 at halftime despite shooting just 41.7% for the half.

But after scoring the first basket of the second half, things quickly went from bad to worse for the Aggies as Queta was called for three fouls in just under three minutes and had to go to the bench. Moments later, Merrill was called for a foul on what appeared to be a clean block, turning the home crowd against the referees, as well as the Aztecs.

San Diego State ended going on a 17-6 run over a 5½-minute stretch that forced USU head coach Smith into calling a timeout with 13:14 to go and the Aggies trailing by 16 points. Utah State managed to counter with back-to-back 3-pointers by Diogo Brito and Merrill to reignite the crowd, and the Aggies scored 12 of the next 15 points of the game, leading to SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher calling a timeout after a Queta dunk that pulled USU to within 56-49 with 8:29 remaining. 

But five straight points by Mitchell, including a 3-pointer, following Dutcher’s timeout helped keep Utah State at bay, and the Aggies never got any closer than seven points the remainder of the contest, and that was thanks to a 3-pointer by Merrill with 14 seconds left. 

“I think we played good. San Diego State just played better. We just have to take our hats off to them. They hit big shots whenever they needed to,” Queta said. “But I think we’re going to keep on climbing. We’re just going to get better with these losses, and I think we’re going to grow from them.”