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‘Neemie makes the game a lot easier’: Neemias Queta breaking records at Utah State

Utah State center Neemias Queta battles San Jose State’s Ralph Agee for position during the Aggies’ 94-56 win on Feb. 25, 2020, at the Spectrum in Logan. 
Jeff Hunter

LOGAN — While he’s known primarily for his emphatic rejections, Utah State center Neemias Queta was pleased to quietly accept something last Friday night.

The game ball.

“We don’t do that very often; we don’t talk a lot about individual awards,” USU head coach Craig Smith said after the Aggies’ 82-46 rout of New Mexico in Lubbock, Texas.

“But (Queta) has certainly earned it, and no one was happier than all of his teammates.”

While the Aggies (9-3 overall, 6-0 in the Mountain West) were certainly happy with Queta’s 11 points and 13 rebounds in their eighth straight victory, they were even more thrilled that the junior’s third and final block of the game vaulted him into the top spot on USU’s all-time blocks list with 156.

Queta was able to surpass the previous record of 155 blocks by Gilbert Pete, who played at Utah State from 1986-89, in a mere 69 games.

“Not sure what took him so long to break this record,” Smith joked. “But it truly is amazing when you think about the history of Utah State basketball and our rich tradition. We’ve had incredible players come through here — and I don’t know all of the names — but it’s incredible.

“And for him to do this in such a short amount of time on winning teams, I think that says so much about him.”

Smith and Queta are both in the middle of their third season at Utah State. But after having a mammoth freshman season in 2018-19 in which he was named both the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, the 7-foot Queta suffered a severe knee injury in the summer of 2019 while playing in an international tournament in his native Portugal.

Limited to just 22 games in 2019-20, Queta totaled 38 blocks as a sophomore after setting USU’s single-season mark with 84 in 2018-19. But a mere 12 games into his junior campaign, Queta already has a Mountain West-best 34 blocks, including 25 in Utah State’s six conference games.

“I felt like I was already a pretty good shot blocker all of the time I’ve been here,” Queta said. “But I feel like I’ve taken the next step, and part of that is avoiding getting stupid fouls on blocks that I shouldn’t get it. That’s a big thing.”

Queta hasn’t fouled out of a game yet this season, and he has picked up four fouls only twice in a dozen games. Of course, the Aggies have won their six conference games by ridiculous margins — an average of more than 33 points per game — so Queta has only played 30 or more minutes in a game twice since early December.

“It also helps a lot knowing that we’ve got a really good perimeter defense,” Queta added. “And whenever they make a mistake, they know that I’ll be there to clean up a lot of those mistakes. So that really limits a lot of mistakes and points that other teams would get off of us.”

That was something that former Utah State star Sam Merrill noticed very quickly when Queta arrived in Logan late in August 2018. Smith said that Merrill, who is now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, told his coach after Queta’s first practice as an Aggie: “Man, Neemie makes the game a lot easier … for everybody.”

“And he does,” Smith said of Queta. “His feel is off the charts. And when I say off the charts, I mean his understanding of the game, his understanding of spacing and his understanding of timing on both sides of the ball.

“And then obviously, his size and athleticism. And his athleticism and size are at an all-time high. He’s 235 pounds, and he gets off the floor fast right now.”

After COVID-19 shut down college basketball last March just as the Aggies were preparing to play in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Queta elected to stay in Cache Valley rather than risk traveling back to Portugal and getting stuck in Europe, which is what happened to several of his international teammates.

While he said it was tough to be away from family and friends in Portugal, the move has obviously paid off on the court as Queta had time to add muscle and completely rehab the knee that caused him problems all of last season.

“I just feel confident every time I go up,” Queta declared. “Because of my wingspan and my vertical and how big I am — and my timing, too — I just feel pretty good whenever I go up to go get blocks. I feel like I’ve got a good chance of either deflecting it, or at least making them shoot over the top of me, and that’s not an easy shot.”

Queta’s presence is clearly a big reason the Aggies currently lead the Mountain West in scoring defense at 60.50 ppg heading into Thursday’s matchup against San Diego State (10-2, 3-1). The two teams, who will play again at the Spectrum Saturday morning, are actually first and second in both scoring defense (the Aztecs are at 60.73 ppg) and field goal percentage (Utah State .380, SDSU .391).

Boise State (11-1, 7-0), which has won 11 straight games, currently sits atop the conference standings heading into this week, followed by Utah State, Colorado State and San Diego State. The Rams (8-2, 5-1) also play in Logan next week, meaning the Aggies will go from playing three of the four worst teams in the Mountain West to matching up against two of the top four teams.

“We took care of business now to get out to this 6-0 start, and now it’s San Diego State, which is a tremendous, tremendous team,” Smith said. “We’ve actually got four games in eight days coming up, and Colorado State has been playing fantastic basketball. But we’re excited to be at home after being gone eight out of 10 days.”

The Aztecs, who went 30-2 and were ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 at the end of last season, were upset in the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament on the strength of Merrill’s 3-pointer with less five seconds remaining. But like the Aggies with Merrill, the Aztecs have had to adjust to life without a MW Player of the Year due to Malachi Flynn moving onto the NBA and a spot with Toronto Raptors.

But third-year head coach Brian Dutcher has the Aztecs inching their way back toward the Top 25 once again thanks to nonconference wins over UCLA and Arizona State. San Diego State’s only losses came at home to Colorado State (70-67) and Brigham Young (72-62), a team that beat the Aggies at the Spectrum, 67-64, on Dec. 5.

But while the Aztecs have been strong defensively once again, their offense isn’t what it was last year without Flynn — currently seventh in scoring offense (72.1 ppg) and field goal percentage (.446). Conversely, the Aggies are second in field goal percentage (.466) and third in scoring offense (77.75 ppg) despite the loss of Merrill, who finished his career second on USU’s all-time scoring list.

Balance has certainly been the key for the Aggies, whose leading scorer, Marco Anthony (12.9 ppg), is the only USU player to crack the Top 20 in scoring in the Mountain West. But Queta (12.3 ppg) and junior forward Justin Bean (11.6 ppg) are close behind, with Queta also leading the conference in field goal percentage at .577.

Possibly the most surprising statistic of Utah State this season, though, is that the 7-foot junior center currently leads the team in assists with 38 — four more than freshman point guard Rollie Worster. Queta who had a half-dozen assists against Air Force on Jan. 2, totaled just 41 assists last season and 57 in 2018-19.

“I think it’s because I’ve been double-teamed so much since I’ve been here,” Queta said when asked about his passing prowess. “It’s just the amount of reps, and I’ve just been able to adjust really well. Teams try and double-team me because they know I’m pretty good scorer down in the post, and if they do that, I’ve learned how to find the open teammate.

“It’s just basketball for me,” Queta added. “I just try and make the right play every time and not being selfish. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s there for somebody else.”