SALT LAKE CITY — Sam Merrill and his teammates anticipated the news last Thursday that this year’s NCAA Tournament would be canceled, with growing concern enveloping the country about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, when the Utah State senior found out on the way to practice that the NCAA Tournament, along with all winter and spring NCAA championships, was indeed cancelled, it was an emotional realization that Merrill’s college career was done.

“It was a tough moment for sure,” Merrill said in a video the Utah State basketball Twitter account posted online Monday. “It was a really emotional meeting. We met down here on the Spectrum floor. Coach (Craig) Smith spoke to us for a few minutes and it was, like I said, very emotional. He mentioned how proud he was of us and how sad it was for all of us.” 

Merrill and the Aggies were ensured a spot in the NCAA 68-team field by virtue of earning the Mountain West Conference’s automatic bid when they won the league tournament. It was Merrill’s game-winning 3-pointer that spurred USU past San Diego State in the MW title game.

Merrill said Smith then opened up the floor for anyone to speak, with only a couple coaches taking that opportunity.

“I think all of us players were too emotional to be able to say anything,” Merrill said.

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Merrill, a Bountiful High product who finished his career with 2,197 points while earning back-to-back All-MW first-team honors and the 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year distinction, recalled his journey at Utah State, which included battling through two tough seasons before qualifying for the NCAAs each of the past two years.

“We really felt that we could do something and that we could be successful here. We put in the work and obviously had two great years, two of the best years Utah State has had,” Merrill said. “For me personally, to just learn how to fight through adversity while playing for a school that I love has been a special experience.”