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How ‘cold, tough mission’ helped Utah State’s Abel Porter become stronger person and basketball player

Utah State guard Abel Porter walks onto the court on senior night with his wife, Presley, and parents Abel and Martha Porter on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at the Smith Spectrum in Logan.
Jeff Hunter

LOGAN — It comes as no surprise that Utah State guards Abel Porter and Sam Merrill are competitive — on the basketball court and off.

But the two Aggie teammates, who have been friends since they were 10 years old, have engaged in a rather unique running argument the past few years: Who served in a tougher mission?

As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Porter left his native Farmington for a two-year stint in the Russia Samara Mission, while Merrill, who grew up in Bountiful, served in Nicaragua.

“Sam always says that he had the tough, hot mission, while I had the cold, tough mission,” Porter says with a smile. “But at the same time, he had a tough, hot mission where he taught lessons, while I had a tough, cold mission where I didn’t do anything but talk to people.”

But like Merrill, Porter recognizes that serving two years in a challenging part of the world helped mentally forge him into a stronger person and player.

“It kind of gave me this fight and grit,” Porter says of his mission. “I developed a lot more mental toughness where I didn’t care what was going on. I was just like, ‘I can do this.’ That’s kind of the attitude you have to have your first few months in the mission is: ... ‘It’s going to be really hard. But I can do this.’

“That’s what my mission provided me with. I can push through whatever. And that really helped me when I first got here to Utah State and felt kind of overwhelmed, like I was drowning in all of this athleticism and skill around me. That mindset really helped me bounce back from it.”

Technically a junior, Porter made it official shortly before USU’s senior night on Feb. 25 that this would be his final season with the Aggies. Porter, who was recognized at USU as a Joe E. and Elma Whitesides Scholar-Athlete in 2017, ’18 and ’19, completed his degree in business administration last May, and will finish up a master’s in human resources in May.

The former Davis High standout also married his longtime girlfriend, Presley Stettler, last spring in Hawaii, and the couple is expecting their first child — a daughter — in August.

“I talked to Coach (Craig) Smith about it at the beginning of the season, and he told me he would support me in whatever I wanted to do,” Porter says. “So, with finishing up school for the second time, I thought it might just be best to kind of end my time here on a great run, with a great group of guys, and move onto the next thing.”

Porter says that other than being a father, he’s not exactly sure what “the next thing” is yet, but ultimately would like to work in the front office for an NBA team or another professional sports franchise. The youngest child of Abel and Martha Porter also played baseball and soccer for the Darts, and Porter was recruited by several schools as a football player after garnering all-region honors as a junior and senior as a wide receiver and punt returner.

Unlike his rival, friend and AAU teammate, Merrill, who was raised an Aggie, Porter grew up a Utes’ fan. But ironically, Porter’s older sister, Sydne, ended up playing soccer for Utah State — crossing over a couple of seasons with Sam’s oldest sibling, Molli — and invited her little brother up to Cache Valley on a few occasions to experience a little bit of college life.

“I actually went to a Utah at Utah State game when I was about 12 and stood in the student section at the Spectrum, and it was just crazy,” Porter recalls.

Sydne also ended up marrying a close friend of Aggie super fan “Wild Bill” Sproat, so soon USU’s most beloved supporter was hanging out at the Porter household during the holidays, “and he just became one of our family members,” Abel says.

Utah State’s Abel Porter (15) drives around UNLV’s Marvin Coleman (31) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, in Las Vegas.
John Locher, Associated Press

Coupled with the knowledge that Merrill was headed to Utah State after his mission, Porter says he started to view USU as “a great place to go” by the time he was contacted by former Aggie assistant Chris Jones. Although he wasn’t offered a scholarship, Porter stayed in touch with Merrill via email while on their missions, and by the start of the 2016-17 season, they were roommates and playing for former USU coach Tim Duryea.

But while Merrill was on scholarship and quickly established himself as a starter, Porter was a walk-on who ended up redshirting that year after suffering a foot injury. He saw action in 23 games in 2017-18, averaging 1.1 points per game during a 17-17 season that ended with Duryea getting fired. While starting point guard Koby McEwen ended up transferring to Marquette, Merrill and Porter stayed in Logan to play for new head coach Craig Smith.

In McEwen’s absence, Smith initially turned to Crew Ainge as his starting point guard, but even though USU got off to a 13-5 start, Smith still made a huge change on Jan. 19, 2019, when he plugged Porter into the starting spot. The Aggies defeated Colorado State, 87-72, that night, and Utah State went on to win 15 of its next 16 games before losing to Washington in the NCAA Tournament.

“Abel is Mr. Dependable, Mr. Reliable,” Smith says of Porter. “He just does everything you ask, and he’s certainly been a big part of what we’ve done here.”

Porter averaged 5.5 points and 2.8 assists per game in 2018-19, while shooting 42% from the field and 40.5% from 3-point range. Heading into this week’s Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, Porter’s shooting is off significantly this season (38.1% from the field, 30.6% from 3-point), but his points (6.1 ppg) and assists (3.4 apg) are up slightly.

A back issue has hampered Porter this season, often leading to him getting treatment the second he sits down on the bench. And yet, “Mr. Dependable” is the only other Aggie besides sophomore forward Justin Bean to start all 31 games this season.

Also originally a walk-on, Bean and Porter both found out they would be on scholarship just a couple of days before USU’s game at New Mexico on Jan. 26, 2019. Porter backed up Smith’s decision by knocking down a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left in a 68-66 Aggie victory that seemed to cement Utah State as a legitimate contender in the Mountain West after being picked to finish ninth in the preseason poll.

“I just remember being ready. And after watching the replay, I saw my feet were just going like this (shuffling quickly) and ready to go,” Porter recalls of the biggest shot of his career. “And then Sam. I don’t think there’s ever been a more unselfish player that’s scored 2,000 points. He just finds the open guy. He doesn’t force it.

“… He gave it to me, and I had a great look. I remember the ball going in, and the not really understanding what happened, other than that there was still time on the clock and I needed to play defense.

“It was just an awesome experience,” Porter adds.

Unfortunately for Porter and the Aggies, the team’s return to Albuquerque last Saturday was far from an “awesome experience.” Utah State ended up letting a 14-point lead get away in the second half and lost, 66-64. And while trying to stop a breakaway following a turnover with 5:15 to go, Porter fouled UNM’s Vance Jackson hard and was ejected due to a Flagrant 2 violation.

Utah State guard Abel Porter passes past Florida forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. during game Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

Rather than leave The Pit a hero like he did last season, Porter, who hit the floor just as hard as Jackson, hobbled off the court and up the tunnel with his teammates on their way to their first loss since Feb. 1, a setback that could very well be the difference between an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the NIT.

But Porter and the Aggies (12-6 in the MW, 23-8 overall) could face New Mexico (7-11, 18-13) again on the Thursday in the Mountain West Tournament, if the Lobos get past San Jose State (3-15, 7-23) in the first round. And that would provide another opportunity for Porter to display that “fight and grit” that has served him well since returning home from southeastern Russia.

Not that Porter expected to go anywhere near Samara, Russia. He had hoped to serve in Samoa, the native home of his grandparents. And when he first opened his mission call, he thought he was, indeed, headed for the South Pacific.

“I saw S-A-M … and then A-R-A, Russia. Dang it!” Porter admits. “I didn’t really know anything about Russia, or what I was getting into. But I had a great desire to serve and do the right thing. And I ended up learning so much and I grew a ton on my mission, so I am glad that it was hard.”