LAS VEGAS — Saturday was quite a day for the Utah State faithful.
Sam Merrill hit a dramatic, game-winning three to beat No. 5 San Diego State 59-56 to clinch an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. The road to USU’s championship win makes Merrill’s shot even more thrilling. The Aggies’ slow conference start put them on the edge of bubble, and with just 15 hours of rest after their semifinal win over Wyoming — which ended around 11 PM local time — the game had real stakes.
USU overcame those tired legs, a 13-minute field goal drought and a nine-point half time deficit against top-seeded SDSU in front of an Aztec-friendly crowd. This was mostly thanks to Merrill’s 27 points, 17 of which came in the second half, which allowed the Aggies to mount a comeback that ended in history.
The second-half rally allowed USU to draw within striking distance in the closing minutes. Merrill tied the game on a free throw with less than a minute left and on the defensive end, he forced a stop, making SDSU star point guard Malachi Flynn settle for a low percentage step-back three. This gave Merill and the Aggies a chance to wait for the last shot.
To put the ball in the hands of its best player, Aggies’ coach Craig Smith ran a play that big man Justin Bean described as “1-4 flat” — a set that spread everyone across the baseline, isolating Merrill with a one-on-one at the top of the key. On Saturday, that meant being matched with one of the league’s best defenders, KJ Feagin.
SAM MERRILL, ONIONS pic.twitter.com/PrXYv0DQVu— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 8, 2020
The result was a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight and one of the first magical moments of March. The pocket of USU fans in the Thomas & Mack Center went crazy while the SDSU crowd was shocked in silence.
Here was the view from press row.
Sam Merrill has ice in his veins what a clutch shot pic.twitter.com/lQropTzLHk— austin montgomery (@amontgomerylive) March 8, 2020
After the game Merrill talked about playing one-on-one in the final moments.
“This is really the first time we’ve done this. Coach isn’t a big one-on-one guy,” he said. “You just work on those one-on-one moves all the time, and you play one-on-one with your buddies growing up. I feel confident where there’s space and I’m confident with my jumper. I feel I can get a shot whenever I need one.”
Merrill was the tournament’s MVP, scoring 29, 27, and 27 points, respectively, across the three wins. In total, he helped the Aggies overcome two double-digit deficits. Against New Mexico, Merrill committed his fourth foul at 15:00 minute mark in the second half. USU overcame an 11-point deficit with under eight minutes in the game and at one point, Merrill scored 11 consecutive points. He was then unstoppable against Wyoming and shut down a late comeback attempt by the MWC’s 2020 Cinderella.
Moreover, Merrill’s best performance came in the championship game, where he orchestrated one of the best second-half shooting performances in MWC Tournament history. After starting 1-7 from the field, he finished with those 27 points. It was also a comprehensive effort, as he held a potential All American in Flynn to his worst shooting night of the season. He shot just 6-20 on the game, including a 1-9 shooting mark in the first half. This was easily was the most significant factor that kept the Aggies in the game when their own shots weren’t falling.
Merrill talked about what it meant to win the conference championship.
“To be able to just find a way. To win three tough, tough games — against New Mexico, who is probably playing their best basketball, Wyoming, who was absolutely playing their best basketball of the season and then San Diego State, who’s as good as advertised, it’s super sweet,” he said.
Smith got extremely emotional the podium when talking about his star guard.
“He just makes everyone better — when he’s on the floor, there’s just so much confidence he provides everyone else. He’s the most unselfish star I have ever been around,” the second-year USU coach said. “He’s just so programmed to make the right play all the time. He’s the second all-time leading scorer at Utah State, number two in assists. That is unheard of, and he never plays point guard. Nothing surprises me, and everyone is going to talk about that shotm but the dude guarded Malachi Flynn all night. He has always guarded the other team’s top guard. He’s the ultimate competitor.”
A great example of Merrill spreading confidence to his teammates happened after a turnover in the first half during USU’s 13-minute field goal drought. Sophomore guard Brock Miller had the ball in transition, while sophomore center Nemias Queta was running the floor with position. Miller saw him but botched the lob pass throwing the ball over Queta and out of bounds, missing a much needed opportunity to get two points. As Miller had a disjointed look on his face, Merrill immediately went over to cheer his teammate up.
Miller talked about the situation after the game.
“He came over to me slapped me on the butt, and said it’s all good don’t worry about it. You’ll get him on the next one,” he said “It’s one of those things where we say next play, preventing one mistake turning into two, three or four. He always asserts that he has confidence in all of us, and kept us going.”
Merrill’s unselfishness is one reason his teammates love him. Merrill leads the Aggies in point and assists on the court, but what he exemplifies as a leader on the court is what drives the Aggies to be a successful team. Servant leadership is one of the most powerful qualities a person can possess and Merrill projects in everyone way. Miller and Bean talk about Merrill’s unselfishness and work ethic.
“Sam is unbelievable player and person. He is humble and doesn’t like talking about himself. He’s a team guy, he’s unselfish he plays the right way. He plays to win, he’s not in for himself, he’s in it for the team,” he said.
Bean tells a story where where Smith told Merrill he was being too unselfish.
“I remember during points in the season Coach told him he had to shoot the ball more, because [Merrill] taking a contested shot is a better look than what we are going to get elsewhere. Sam is really unselfish and he’s shown that all year. He leads our team in assists,” Bean said.
For the Aggies, Merrill’s unselfishness came at the perfect time.
They knew they would have to sweat profusely on Selection Sunday if they did not fly back with the MWC Tournament trophy. That made Merrill’s tournament-sealing, game-winning shot so much sweeter. Although coach Smith claims he ignored all the noise, Merrill admitted he kept up with bracketogy and knew how important Saturday’s game was.
After all, the Aggies had a season filled with adversity. The MWC preseason number one team battled multiple injuries and opened conference play with four losses in their first five games. USU had uncharacteristic shooting struggles throughout the season, and there were times Merrill had to carry the Aggies offense during major stretches.
After the game, Merrill was asked if the game had been a must win with regard to the Big Dance.
“We weren’t sure — we felt like every game was a must-win for us,” he said. “This year feels sweeter than last year. Last year, it just feels like everything went perfect. But this year we had to go through some stuff. [Queta] missing a ton of games, some other undisclosed injuries that slowed us down a little bit, and lost a couple games that we really had no business losing.”
Merrill has already achieved legend status in Logan.
He’s has engineered a winning culture that’s led the best two-year run since the Aggies won 27 games in 2010 and then 30 games in 2011. Over the last two years, USU has won 54 games, one MWC regular season title, two MWC tournament titles. Merrill himself has won a series of accolades: 2018-2019 conference player of the year, and two MWC tournament MVP’s.
Miller shared what Merrill has meant to the program the last couple years.
“He means a lot to Aggie Nation. What he’s done over the course of the last years has been unbelievable,” he said. “Since Coach Smith came in we’ve gone back to back championship, Sam has been our leader. He plays to win, he’s not in for himself, he’s in it for the team.
However, Merrill has yet to accomplish his most important goal: winning an NCAA Tournament game. The Aggies haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since beating Kansas State in 2001, when Merrill was just five years old. Merrill is not a guy who will rest on his winnings. Merrill has already shifted his focus to his next goal, he’s not ready to reflect on his time at USU yet since he still has a major piece to add to his legacy
“I mean, I’ll look back when this is all said and done and be grateful and obviously have fond memories of Utah State. But it’s been the goal from day one. We had a chance last year, didn’t come through, and fortunately found a way to get another opportunity. You can bet that we’ll bring our best to wherever and whoever we play.”