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Utah State wins back-to-back championships, SDSU falls again

For the first time since 2007-08, the Mountain West tournament saw a championship rematch. Last year’s victors, the Utah State Aggies, took on the top-seeded San Diego State Aztecs, and it was a thriller. The game went down to the final second, and the Aggies came out as champions, with the final score being 59-56.

“It is a thin line between winning and losing, and when we look back at film, we will see that we had a lot of opportunity to win,” SDSU guard K.J. Feagin said. “We just didn’t capitalize, so going into March Madness we need to clean up the mistakes.”

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The game was a battle of the top two teams in the conference, and it showed. The defense early on was suffocating, and both teams struggled to score early. This was especially true for Utah State and their star player Sam Merrill. Merrill was last year’s MW Conference Player of the Year and tournament MVP, but after making the first three of this game, he went on a long scoring drought. He shot 2-8 from three in that first half.

Sam Merrill dribbles to the basket on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

This year’s Conference Player of the Year, Malachi Flynn, also was cold in the first half. He ended with 16 points but only had three points in the first half. Luckily for SDSU, the rest of the team picked up the early slack. Yanni Wetzell nearly had a first-half double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds, and eight of Feagin’s 11 points came in the first half.

Toward the end of the half, Merrill, a player known for his ability to heat up quickly, started to catch fire out of nowhere and give Utah State momentum with three consecutive successful shots. He helped spark a 10-2 Aggies run that ended with Diogo Brito hitting a 3-point buzzer-beater to cut the lead to 29-21.

That late stretch motivated Utah State going into the half, and they came out of halftime strong and stayed strong for the rest of the game.

“The way we finished the first half was huge because not a lot was going right on the offensive end, and we kind of weathered the storm and put up a bit of a run,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said.

Flynn started to hit more shots for SDSU, but Utah State saw strong contributions from Neemias Queta and Justin Bean. Bean did all of the dirty work, and Queta, who was outplayed by SDSU big man Wetzell in the first half, started to get lots of buckets down low.

The clock dwindled down to 39 seconds, and Utah State was down one. The man who seemed like he couldn’t miss, Merrill, missed his first free throw, but he made the second to tie the game.

Flynn went for the go-ahead 3-point shot but missed it, and Merrill picked up the rebound, securing the possession without a shot clock for Utah State.

Merrill let the clock tick down until he took an insanely tough shot from way past the 3-point line with a hand in his face, and he drilled it. Merrill was knocked down but was unfazed by the pressure, and only six seconds remained.

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“I was just trying to get a good look and had been hoping that I would get that opportunity,” Merrill said.  

Utah State celebrates on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

SDSU was down by three points, and after seeing Utah State’s defense, they called a timeout in order to draw up a new play. The ball was inbounded to Flynn, who heaved the ball from just past half court on the right side, and the ball seemed perfectly lined up with the center of the rim. Flynn’s shot rimmed in and out and barely missed going in by a matter of only a couple of inches.

The miss secured the win for Utah State, who has now repeated as conference champions.

Merrill won the tournament MVP award, his second in a row. He finished with 27 points in the final game. For the tournament, Merrill averaged 27.7 points per game, shooting 55.8% from the field and 42.3% from beyond the arc.

The win punches the Aggies a seat in the big dance, and SDSU, as the fifth team in the nation, will also go to March Madness as a top seed. Flynn, Feagin, Merrill and Queta all made the All-Tournament Team along with Wyoming’s Kwane Marble II.

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  • San Diego State basketball player Malachi Flynn shoots on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Utah State players talk with seconds left on the clock on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • San Diego State basketball player Jordan Schakel looks to pass on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • The Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before the start of the final game of the men’s 2020 Mountain West Tournament on March 7, 2020. Utah State University won in a close game against San Diego State University 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Jordan Schakel shoots on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Fans hold signs for who they honor on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Matt Mitchell shoots on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Adam Seiko on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Matt Mitchell shoots on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Sam Merrill feeling the pressure before a free throw on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Utah State fans on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Utah State basketball player Neemias Queta dunks on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • The Utah State Mascot, Big Blue, on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Utah State fans celebrate on Mar. 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

  • Utah State basketball player Sam Merrill takes a moment after making the game and tournament winning shot on March 7. Utah State won in a close game against San Diego State 59-56. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

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Bailey Bassett can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @baileybassett_.

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