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Utah State punches NCAA Tournament ticket with Sam Merrill’s game-winner

The Aggies are going dancing for the second straight year.

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- Utah State vs San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If the college basketball season is a marathon, Utah State dug deep with tired legs and powered through mile 26.2 as it crossed the finished line into the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, the Aggies became the first team to officially punch its ticket to the Dance with a 59-56 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament championship game.

It didn’t come easy though and it definitely wasn’t pretty.

For the first time in the tournament, San Diego State came out of the locker room locked in. After Air Force and Boise State essentially had their ways with the Aztec defense in the first half of their matchups, Utah State couldn’t generate anything against the nation’s 10th-most-efficient defense. At one point late in the half, the Aggies were in the midst of a field goal drought that spanned almost 13 minutes and 20 possessions as a 20-4 Aztec run pushed the lead to double digits.

Could some of that be attributed to tired legs? Sure. After all, Utah State’s semifinal game against Wyoming didn’t tip off until 11:30 p.m. ET, giving the Aggies roughly 16 hours to recuperate before fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives.

However, Sam Merrill stepped up late in the first half and ripped off seven straight points and a Diogo Brito three at the buzzer cut the deficit to eight as the two teams went to the locker room to regroup and try to salvage whatever energy was left in their bodies. The 29-21 margin was evidence of a sloppy first half on both sides.

A quick 7-0 burst from the Aggies ramped the intensity up early in the second half. They were able to cut the deficit to one, but as San Diego State had done repeatedly in the tournament, the Aztecs locked in to prevent them from getting over the hump. However, Utah State wouldn’t go away as a pair of Alphonso Anderson threes made it a 37-36 game with 12 minutes to play.

Following the under-12 media timeout, Merrill went unconscious. A deeeeeep transition three gave the Aggies a 44-42 lead, but Malachi Flynn immediately answered with a three of his own to take the lead right back. At the under-8 media timeout, Merrill had 23 of Utah State’s 44 points.

A thunderous dunk from Neemias Queta put the Aggies up by four as the Aztecs sputtered on offense with sloppy turnovers on consecutive possessions. At the final media timeout, the Aggies held a 53-49 lead as the taste of a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid inched closer to their lips.

With 1:18 to play, Merrill got a wide open look from three that would have made it a two-possession game, but tired legs left the shot short. An Aztec timeout on the ensuing possession drew up a play for Flynn, who hit a pullup jumper to go up 56-55 with under a minute to play. The next trip down, Merrill hit one of two free throws to tie it at 56.

Flynn missed a pullup three on San Diego State’s next possession, giving the Aggies the chance to hold for the last possession. Enter Sam Merrill once more.

THIS IS MARCH!

A halfcourt heave from Flynn nearly went in, but Merrill’s shot that led to his game-high 27 points turned out to be the dagger and the Aggies celebrated their second consecutive Mountain West Tournament title.

With the automatic bid, the Aggies eliminate any doubt about their standing in the NCAA Tournament. Coming into this week, there was only one game that would have gotten them over the hump: this one. After a rollercoaster of a season, the No. 17 team in the preseason AP Poll is dancing after all.

For San Diego State, a little bit of drama awaits. After being on the 1 seed line for roughly two months or so, its standing at the top is suddenly in jeopardy. The Aztecs will have to sit back and hope that teams like Dayton, Florida State or Maryland don’t rip off a hot stretch to bump them down to a 2 seed.