Inspired effort not enough as Rams fall in overtime to Utah State

Eddie Herz

The Utah State Aggies’ stroll to Moby Arena did not go as “merrily” as anticipated.

USU leading-scorer Sam Merrill and company headed to Fort Collins having won six consecutive games, including an upset win over No. 12 Nevada last Saturday. Given the elite level of play demonstrated by the Aggies recently, USU appeared to be in line for an easy victory against CSU.

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A stress-free night was far from the outcome, as five extra minutes were needed to decide the winner. The Rams scratched and clawed, and even led the game late, before losing 100-96 in overtime.

“We will never make excuses,” Head Coach Niko Medved said. “There is no such thing as moral victories, but I’m really proud of our guys … some guys just absolutely gave us everything they had. As a coach, you can’t ask for more.”

The Aggies shot out of the gate with the same level of intensity and sharpshooting that led the program to a signature victory over the Wolf Pack last week.

USU converted five of its first six attempts from the floor, putting CSU in an early 10-2 hole. Though they were a little late to the party, the Rams made up ground in a competitive opening 20 minutes.

Freshman forward Adam Thistlewood capped a 17-9 run by knocking down a 3-pointer with around 11 minutes remaining in the frame, tying the score at 19. USU comfortably responded and accumulated an eight-point lead minutes later.

That was when the green and gold began to find their stroke from beyond the arc. J.D. Paige and Kendle Moore sunk triples on back-to-back possessions, trimming the deficit to 31-29.

Merrill was kept in check for the most part in the first half. The guard contributed 29-points in the win over the Wolf Pack but was held to only four through the first 17 minutes of action.

Merrill started to heat up at the end of the half, as he deserves credit for maintaining USU’s lead in the final few minutes. Merrill scored seven points in the last three minutes of the segment, including a mid-range jumper with only a few ticks remaining.

The brief spark was all the junior needed to play to the level indicated in his scouting report for the rest of the evening. Merrill created space and earned shooters’ rolls from all areas of the court during the second half.

“He is the player of the year in the league, he is going to get my vote,” Medved said. “He is just a terrific player. He is a great competitor, plays with so much poise … he is as good of a playmaker as there is in our league.”

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CSU had no answers to contain the guard. Merrill added 27 of his career-high 38 points in the second half. The guard converted 15-23 attempts from the floor. 

If it weren’t for Paige playing cat-and-mouse with the talented scorer, USU would have pulled away much sooner. Merrill and Paige went back-and-forth until the final buzzer sounded. Paige notched a season-high with 29 points against the Aggies.

In his second to last home game as a Ram, the guard played with ice water in his veins. Paige put the Rams ahead with a layup in the closing minutes of regulation. He also tied the score at 82 with two clutch free throws late in the contest.

“We were right there at the end to win it,” Paige said. “Everybody gave a great effort; we just didn’t come away with it.”

Colorado State managed to stay within striking distance the entire game. But, there wasn’t much to lift the fans at Moby out of their seats until the end of regulation drew near.

Per usual, redshirt junior center Nico Carvacho carried CSU, in addition to Paige. Led by the big man, the Rams finally made a successful push for the lead after clawing at the Aggies for quite some time. After a Carvacho layup, Kris Martin sank two free throws with 5:18 left in the game. This gave CSU a 76-75 lead, its first of the evening.

“We went out there and we fought, that is what I am really proud about,” Carvacho said. “We went out there and fought until the end of it. We had them in regulation and we were up by two. I think we just have to keep battling. We had Nevada close here, we had Utah State close here … we just have to keep working hard in practice to finish it out.”

The Aggies didn’t let up, but this time CSU found a way to extend its crucial run. After Paige tied the score at 82, Carvacho provided a go-ahead reverse layup. Following one of many answers from Merrill, the center came through again, this time giving the Rams the edge with less than one minute to go.

Paige then had an opportunity to slam the door on what would have been a remarkable upset in his second to last home game as a Ram. The guard controlled an inbound with 13.3 seconds left in a tie game. The guard held for the final shot, which ended up rimming out. 

“We probably should have driven the ball with the paint open like that, we probably should have put it on the floor,” Medved said. “But you know what, J.D. had played really well — he felt confident, he was in rhythm. That shot goes down, no one is saying anything.” 

Colorado State came out flat in the extra period. USU strung together a 9-0 run early in the frame, which was enough to earn the victory.

CSU exhibited admirable play in the matchup. However, no one wearing green and gold made excuses for not having five minutes left in the tank.

“We just have to lock in more, be more focused, be more determined,” Paige said.

Up next CSU will take on UNLV at home on Saturday at 2 p.m. in their final home game of the regular season.

Eddie Herz can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @Eddie_Herz.