Before tip-off, Utah State and San Diego State fans chanted the famed “I believe that we will win” chant at the Thomas and Mack Center.
In the end, it was the Utah State fans who were able to cheer victoriously. Sam Merrill lead Utah State 24 points and big man Neemias Queta scored 17 points and added 8 rebounds leading the Aggies 64-57 victory in the Mountain West Championship game.
“[We’re proud] to win this and make history,” Head coach Craig Smith said. “We’re going to carry that and represent the Mountain West in a great fashion in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Aggies used a strong second half start to pull away from the Aztecs.
The first ten minutes of the game resembled a rugby scrum. Both teams struggled to get it going offensively; the teams combined for 17 points in the first nine minutes. However after consecutive big from McDaniels and Queta both teams started to find their rhythm offensively.
Utah State would hit its next five shots and San Diego State was able to hang around with help of a couple of Watson threes. The teams traded baskets down the stretch to what was an entertaining first half. Utah State took a 34-32 lead into the break despite Sam Merrill failing to make a single three pointer.
At the start of the second half the Aggies asserted themselves by going on a 13-0 run. San Diego State tried to battle back but Utah State prevented the Aztecs from getting anything going offensively. The Aztecs shot a miserable 27 percent from the field in the second half.
The Aztecs defense would effectively get stops but they struggled to make a run as the Aztecs offense began to sputter. San Diego State struggled to get open looks and move the ball efficiently. Jalen McDaniels was held in check offensively through the entire stretch.
As the game seemed to get a hand for the Aztecs, Brain Dutcher’s squad kept fighting. SDSU remained within 12 despite a 2:09 minute scoreless stretch. After losing McDaniels with 5:55 left to go, the Aztecs were able to make short run. SDSU began to pressure the ball and play very aggressive defensively. SDSU was able to create buckets on Utah State turnovers. Watson hit a three with four minutes to go to bring the Aztecs to within single-digits for the first time since the 15:00 minute mark.
San Diego State got many chances down the stretch but couldn’t convert. Mitchell missed two consecutive open threes to bring it within five. Down by seven, San Diego State missed back-to-back front ends of the one-and-one. Utah State left the door open for comeback, but the Aztecs still couldn’t deliver. With McDaniels out of the game, Utah State was able to focus on stopping Watson. Utah State did an excellent job fighting over screens and forcing Watson off his right hand. Despite being guarded by an army, Watson still hit big shots down the stretch to keep the Aztecs hopes alive. San Diego State was able to stay in the game due to their 15 offensive rebounds but the Aggies prevented them from scoring any second chance points.
Utah State clinched its first Mountain West tournament title and left no doubt about their spot in the NCAA Tournament. The title was the finishing touch on first-year head coach Craig Smith’s memorable turnaround. He took a program who finished seventh in the conference and was picked ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll — all without leading scorer Koby McEwen, who transferred to Marquette in the offseason. Now, the Aggies are poised for possibly a deep run in March.