LOGAN – Call it a rematch of the rematch.

Just five days after suffering a deflating defeat at New Mexico, the second-seeded Aggies will open play at the 2020 Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship by facing the Lobos again at 7 p.m. MT Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Thursday’s game also marks the second straight year that Utah State has played a seventh-seeded New Mexico team in its first game of the postseason. In 2019, the Aggies started their run to the MW tourney title with a 91-83 win over the Lobos.

“March Madness is upon us … a little earlier than normal. But we’re excited to be a part of it,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “It’s an exciting time; a great event in a fantastic venue.

“We’re coming off a tough loss obviously. ... But we’re also coming off a good practice and we’re excited to try and defend our title.”

Utah State (23-8) lost in Albuquerque, 66-64, on Feb. 29, ending its winning streak at six — a game short of its winning streak heading into last year’s Mountain West tourney. Due to the impact of an estimated 125,000 individuals converging on Las Vegas next week for the mammoth CONEXPO-CON/AGG International Construction Trade Show, the Mountain West Conference elected to move up its postseason tournament a week. 

Play got underway Wednesday afternoon, with No. 9 seed Air Force beating No. 8 Fresno State, 77-70, followed by New Mexico’s 79-66 clobbering of No. 10 San Jose State. 

The victory by the Lobos (19-13) set up another showdown with the Aggies. Utah State only faced New Mexico once during the regular season, and they let a 52-38 lead in Albuquerque with 11:46 to go completely disappear down the stretch. The Lobos outscored the Aggies 28-12 the rest of the way, including a 7-1 spurt over the final 79 seconds.

The Aggies lost despite shooting 47.2% for the game, thanks primarily to 17 turnovers.

“Certainly we’ve got to cut down on our turnovers,” Smith said of facing the Lobos again. “That was a big problem that night – and not only just the turnovers – but it led to 12 points of theirs. And we’ve got to finish plays. And when I say finish, it starts with finishing around the basket. In the first half we had six or seven, literally, point-blank shots that if you shot ‘em 100 times, you probably make ‘em a 100 times.

“Some of that is I think they might have speed us up with their length and athleticism, but you’ve got to be able to finish those plays.”

Sophomore center Neemias Queta had 18 points and 14 rebounds in the loss at The Pit, but also contributed eight turnovers. Senior guard Sam Merrill had 18 points on 6-for-16 shooting. Sophomore swingman Vance Jackson led New Mexico with 17 points, while senior forward Corey Manigault added 16 points.

“I feel like it was big,” Jackson said of UNM’s upset of the Aggies. “It gave us, like a lot of confidence. You know what I’m saying? A lot of momentum. And we know we’re capable of competing with anybody if our conference. I feel like that win was big.”

Utah State’s victory over New Mexico in last year’s MW tourney didn’t come easy inasmuch as the contest featured 16 ties and 19 lead changes. The Aggies had 24 turnovers in the game, but they still managed to score 52 points in the second half after being tied with the Lobos at halftime.

Holding New Mexico to 38.9% shooting was a huge factor, as was a 46-28 rebounding advantage and a 35-for-45 performance at the free-throw line. 

Merrill (23 points) and Queta (16 points) had big games for USU, while forward Justin Bean (14 points, 15 rebounds) and guard Diogo Brito (14 points) played well off of the bench. Jackson led New Mexico with 25 points.

The Aggies haven’t won back-to-back conference tournaments since Stew Morrill coached USU to consecutive Big West championships in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. And following last week’s loss to New Mexico, the Aggies know their at-large chances are slim and they’ll probably need to repeat if they want to go back to the NCAA Tournament. 

“There’s a lot of teams that can really come out of this thing, and I don’t know if I felt that way last year,” Smith said of this year’s tournament. “I probably felt like there were three or four teams that could win, but this year I’m not sure you’d be surprised if almost anybody wins it.

 “And that’s not crazy to say when San Diego State has only lost one game all year, which is just incredible. I do think that it’s a wide-open tournament and let the best team win.”

 Last year’s MW Player of the Year, Merrill was named an All-Mountain West first-team selection on Monday, while teammates Queta (second team and Defensive Team) and Bean (third team and Defensive team) were also honored.

Merrill currently has career 2,114 points, leaving him 14 points away from surpassing Greg Grant (2,127 points) for second place on USU’s all-time scoring list. The Bountiful High product is also 55 points away from moving up from fourth to third on the Mountain West’s list of all-time leading scorers.