LAS VEGAS — It could easily be called the most iconic shot in Utah State University basketball history. The degree of difficulty alone, the sheer hardness of the game-winner, made it more spectacular than imaginable.

And who better to deliver it than one of the most legendary players to ever don an Aggies jersey, self-described “lifetime USU man” Sam Merrill?

“That was a shot for the ages, certainly, without question.” — USU coach Craig Smith, on Sam Merrill’s game-winner

The Bountiful High product, who said he couldn’t sleep at his hotel room the night before because he was so excited to add to his sizable and growing legacy in Logan, stuck an NBA-range 3-pointer in the face of hard-guarding San Diego State defender KJ Feagin with 2.5 seconds remaining Saturday afternoon at glitzy Thomas & Mack Center. The shot heard ‘round Aggie Nation, and sure to be remembered for years to come, even forever, lifted Utah State to a 59-56 win over the No. 5-ranked Aztecs in the Mountain West tournament championship game Saturday afternoon.

“I was just trying to get a good look. … I was just threw it up there and it went in,” Merrill said, only half joking.

“That was a shot for the ages, certainly, without question,” said USU coach Craig Smith.

The Aggies (26-8) punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with their second straight tournament title, making the next week more joyful than jittery after entering the contest clearly on the bubble for the Big Dance.

“I didn’t want to play in the NIT,” Merrill said. “I had nightmares about that.”

Added Smith: “That was a whale of a basketball game.”

Let the Merrill Mania begin, a nice liftoff for March Madness.

How Utah State beat No. 5 San Diego State in MWC Tournament championship to earn second straight NCAA Tournament bid

In suffering just its second loss of the season, San Diego State (30-2) will also make the tournament, but perhaps not as a No. 1 seed as was projected before the MW final.

Merrill, the tournament MVP for the second straight year, finished with 27 points on 10 of 22 shooting. Neemias Queta also made the all-tournament team, chipping in 15 points and eight rebounds. Justin Bean added 12 rebounds and held SDSU’s high-scoring and bulldozing Matt Mitchell to four points.

Before he hit the tie-breaking shot over Feagin, Merrill missed a free throw with 39 seconds left that would have given USU the lead. His displeasure over that rare miss was short-lived because SDSU’s Malachi Flynn, the MW Player of the Year, missed a 3-pointer when he got his chance to perhaps clinch it.

“Sam Merrill decided to take over the game, that’s it,” said SDSU coach Brian Dutcher. “… March is for players and he made plays today, made the timely shots.”

Feagin said he “couldn’t have played better defense,” but Merrill pulled up 5 feet beyond the arc and let it fly as Feagin did his best to not foul but appeared to have glanced Merrill just enough for the Aggie senior to call for a foul amidst the celebration afterwards.

After Merrill’s big shot, Flynn hoisted a shot from half court that “looked good the whole way,” according to Dutcher, but rimmed out.

“Both coaches put it in their best players’ hands,” Dutcher said.

Utah State coach Craig Smith put it in the hands of one of the best players in the school’s history. Merrill has scored at least 20 points in each of his last six conference tournament games, all wins, the only Division I player to accomplish that feat in the last 20 years.

San Diego State led by as many as 16 points in the first half and seemed poised to blow the Aggies out of the building early, backed by a boisterous, pro-SDSU crowd. 

Utah State went from 15:06 remaining to 2:11 remaining in the first half without making a field goal. Merrill ended the drought with a tough fadeaway in the lane, then followed with a 3-pointer and another field goal before Diogo Brito hit a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to close the gap to eight points, Brito’s only basket of the game.

“The way we finished the first half was huge,” Smith said. “Quite frankly, it felt like we should have been down 18.”

The Aggies shot 30% in the first half, but only after making their final four shots. Before the run, they were 4 of 19 from the field.

It was a different story in the second half, as Merrill began to take control and the Aggies got two huge 3-pointers and two clutch free throws from Alphonso Anderson off the bench.

Queta’s dunk over Yanni Wetzell and subsequent free throw gave USU a 51-47 lead and started a string of seven-straight points for the USU big man. 

Flynn, who was 6 of 20 from the field, hit a pull-up jumper with just over a minute remaining to give the Aztecs a 56-55 lead.

Then it was time for some Merrill Magic.

“I hope there are a few more,” Merrill said, when asked if it will go down as the most iconic shot in his career.

Then he deferred the praise to his teammates, saying he wouldn’t have been in that situation if Queta hadn’t risen up in the second half, or Bean hadn’t grabbed every loose rebound in sight, or Brito hadn’t hit that “just-as-important” trey before halftime, or Anderson hadn’t sparked the lethargic Aggies off the bench, or point guard Abel Porter hadn’t gutted out 25 minutes on a balky back.

“We could not have won three games in three days without doing it together,” Merrill said.

Or without another memory from Merrill.