Utah State was not able to build on the momentum from its Mountain West Tournament championship, falling to Washington 78-61 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The first 10 minutes were a back and forth affair. The teams traded leads until a Jaylen Nowell-fueled Huskies mini-run after the under eight media timeout give Washington the game’s first lead of substance at 25-19. The Aggies responded, and drew within 27-25 on a Brock Miller three (13 points) with just over five minutes left in the half.
From there, however, the Huskies mounted a 13-3 run to take a 40-28 lead into halftime. During that stretch, Mattise Thybulle (10 points, 5 steals, 3 blocks) hit a three, forced a steal and dunked the ball — a sequence that was indicative of USU’s struggles to contain the athletic senior wing.
The Aggies scored the first five points of the break, cutting the lead to just seven on a Neemias Queta (11 points, 9 rebounds) layup less than two minutes into the second half. Washington surged again to push its lead to as many as 11, but USU — which was riding a 10-game winning streak — did not wilt.
The Aggies forced a slew of turnovers, and capped 14-3 run on a Sam Merrill three (10 points, 3 assists) with just under 10 minutes left in the game. Mike Hopkins immediately signaled for a timeout, and momentum — and the neutral crowd in the Nationwide Arena — seemed to be on the Mountain West Tournament champion’s side.
That turned out to be incorrect.
Huskies forward Nahziah Carter hit a three out of the timeout, and then another long range shot two possessions later. This squashed the USU surge, and the Huskies finished the game on a 24-8 run to lock in a date with either North Carolina or Iona on Sunday.
The Aggies, as they have done all year, made hay on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by six (35-29). But one of the country’s most efficient offenses went cold for long stretches (35.2 FG%) against a stout Washington defense, particularly at the end of either half.
USU, however, returns to Logan having made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons under first-year coach Craig Smith, who engineered an 11-win turnaround. The future looks bright after a breakout freshman season from Queta, and players like Merrill and Diogo Brito also retaining eligibility.