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Utah State beats UNLV behind big nights from Queta, Merrill

Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) shoots next to UNLV guard Marvin Coleman (31) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

LOGAN — It wasn’t easy, but the Aggies’ New Year’s resolution to avenge a 17-point loss at UNLV on Jan. 1 came to fruition Wednesday night at the Spectrum.

Sophomore center Neemias Queta and senior guard Sam Merrill combined for 41 points to lead Utah State to a 69-54 victory over the Rebels.

Down by four points with just over 11 minutes left in the second half, the Aggies (7-5 in the Mountain West, 18-7 overall) surged back behind Queta and Merrill to hand UNLV (6-5, 11-13) its third straight loss.

“Our student body was amazing; it was electric inside the Spectrum in the second half,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “And we finally gave them something to cheer about in the second half.”

Queta connected on 8 of 11 field-goal attempts and went 5 for 7 from the free-throw line on his way to scoring 21 points. The Portugal native, who didn’t play in USU’s 70-53 loss at UNLV due to injury, also pulled down six rebounds and handed out five assists while playing 36 minutes without committing a foul.

“(Queta) was awesome tonight, and he just had a great look to him all day and certainly in that second half,” Smith said. “He didn’t come out until there were like 13 seconds to go. I kept asking him, ‘Are you good? Are you good?’ And he said, “Yes coach, I’m good.’

“... But we rode those guys that second half.”

Merrill, who played all but one minute in the entire game, put up 20 points despite an off-night shooting (5 for 14 from the field and 2 for 8 from 3-point range, but 8 of 10 from the free-throw line).

Battered and bruised down the stretch, Merrill still put up 15 of his points in the second half, helping the home team outscore the Rebels 29-10 over the final 11-plus minutes.

“The first half was similar to what happened down at their place in the first game,” Merrill said. “... In the second half, we really started moving the ball and got it inside to Neemi and defended really well.

“That was a tough game for us and showed how tough we are as a team.”

Queta connected on 8 of 11 field-goal attempts and went 5 for 7 from the free-throw line on his way to 21 points, while Merrill put up 20 points despite an off-night shooting (5 for 14 from the field and 2 for 8 from 3-point range, but 8 of 10 from the free-throw line).

Battered and bruised down the stretch, Merrill still put up 15 of his 20 points in the second half, helping the home team outscore the Rebels 29-10 over the final 11-plus minutes.

Utah State shot 50% as a team, while going 6 for 16 from 3-point range and winning the rebounding battle 34-26. UNLV got 15 points from Bryce Hamilton, but the Rebels shot just 34% from the field, including 4 for 15 from the perimeter.

After falling behind 5-2 to start the game, the Aggies went on a 9-0 run to pull ahead by six points — their largest advantage of the first half. But the Rebels promptly countered with a 9-0 spurt of their own, and the two teams ended up tied four times while trading the lead on seven occasions.

UNLV managed to take a 29-27 lead into the locker room by virtue of a wayward pass by Brock Miller that led to a basket by former Utah forward Donnie Tillman with 26 seconds to go. Merrill then missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the opening half, leaving the Aggies down by two points after shooting 45.8% from the field to 46.2% by UNLV.

The second half started off in horrible form for Utah State, with the Aggies surrendering six straight points to the Rebels during a wild couple of minutes that led to Smith calling a timeout at 17:39 with the Aggies trailing 35-27. The Aggies switched to zone after the timeout and stuck with a zone for the majority of UNLV’s possessions the rest of the contest.

“We were down by eight during that the timeout, but I thought our guys played with great poise and great confidence and great tenacity from there on out,” Smith said. “Certainly mixing up our defense really helped because they are a load.”

The second half started off in horrible form for Utah State, with the Aggies surrendering six straight points to the Rebels during a wild couple of minutes that led to Smith calling a timeout at 17:39 with the Aggies trailing 35-27. The Aggies switched to zone after the timeout and stuck with it almost every possession the rest of the contest.

But the Rebels still managed to hang onto the lead for a few minutes and went up 44-40 with 11:30 to go on a step-back 3-pointer by Elijah Mitrou-Long. But six straight points by Merrill over the next couple of minutes helped the Aggies scratch out their first lead of the second half, and when Miller fired a pass in from the wing that led to a slam dunk by Queta, the Spectrum crowd exploded, forcing UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger to call a timeout with his team suddenly down 48-44.

The Rebels rebounded to tie the score at 48-48 with just over eight minutes remaining, but Merrill hit his first 3-pointer of the game moments later, and the senior kept leading the way afterward, eventually hitting a pair of free throws to increase USU’s lead to 59-49 with 4:52 left, and the Aggies continued to add to that advantage down the stretch.