COLUMBUS, Ohio — A dream season had no fairy tale ending for the Utah State men’s basketball team Friday evening at the Nationwide Center in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Washington used its vaunted zone defense and length to swarm USU and advance to the next round with a 78-61 win.
“Their zone was really good tonight,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said. “They made it really tough on us. We had practiced against it all week, but like I said before the game, you can’t replicate the length they have and the athleticism they have.
“They did a very good job not just taking away my looks, but making things tough for us as a team as well. So just got to give them all the credit in the world.”
The Aggies (28-7) struggled for stretches and ended up with 21 turnovers for the game. That’s the second-most by USU during the 2018-19 campaign.
“I want to congratulate Washington,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said. “I thought they played fantastic, really disrupted us. I thought we were really tentative in the first half. … We struggled to complete passes. We had too many turnovers. We ended up with 21 turnovers on the game, which is very uncharacteristic for us.”
Trailing 51-39 with 12-and-a-half minutes to play in the contest, USU strung together seven unanswered points as Neemias Queta made two free throws, Abel Porter drilled a 3-pointer and Brock Miller made a runner. After the Huskies (27-8) scored three points, the Aggies reeled off another seven straight points as Merrill made two foul shots, Diogo Brito also knocked down a pair of free throws, and Merrill hit a clutch 3-pointer off a pass from Porter to pull the designated home team to within 54-53 with 9:52 left in the game.
With the Aggie faithful roaring its approval and the momentum on USU’s side, Washington called a timeout. Out of the timeout, Nahziah Carter hit back-to-back shots from beyond the arc.
The Aggies got no closer than six the rest of the way. USU could get nothing to drop down the stretch, while the Huskies made all six free throws in the final minute and a half.
“I thought that was a big part of the game, the two threes,” Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins said. “He stepped in, hit wide open shots. That’s when we’re at our best.”
It had been eight years since USU had played in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies are still looking for their first win in the Big Dance since 2001.
“The experience was awesome for us, and it can only go up from here,” said USU guard Brock Miller, who led the team with 13 points. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back next year.”
For just the sixth time this season, USU shot below 40 percent in a game, shooting 35.2 percent from the field.
Meanwhile, the Huskies made 50 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from beyond the arc (10 of 17). Washington is just the third team to shoot better than 50 percent from downtown against the Aggies during the 2018-19 campaign. Hitting 6 of 7 triples in the second half was big for the Huskies, who had six players make at least one trey.
“To their credit, they made some 3s on us and some of those were tough 3s,” Smith said. “Good teams make plays, good players make plays. We’ve done it all year. To their credit, they just made a few more plays than us.”
Joining Miller in double-digit scoring was Queta (11), Merrill (10) and Abel Porter (10). Porter also had five assists. Queta led the Aggies with nine rebounds.
“It’s crazy to think it’s all over, but I’m excited for what this team is going to do next year,” USU senior Quinn Taylor said. “For me, to be part of bringing that tradition back to Utah State was fun.”
The Huskies were led by big man Noah Dickerson with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Jaylen Nowell added 10 points, while Carter came off the bench to net 13.
The Aggies controlled the tip and scored 16 seconds later. They jumped out to a 5-0 lead and built an 11-5 advantage to start the game.
The Huskies took their first lead of the game with a 9-0 run as USU went more than four minutes without scoring. Dickerson scored two buckets in the paint to give Washington a 14-11 lead with 12:55 left in the opening half.
Justin Bean scored all six points during an Aggie surge. His third bucket gave USU a 17-14 lead midway through the first half.
But just when it looked like the Aggies had the momentum back, it swung to the Huskies. Washington netted eight unanswered points to get in front, 22-17. The designated visitors would stay in front the rest of the way.
USU got within two on a Miller 3-pointer. However, the Huskies reeled off a second 9-0 run. Washington took a 40-28 lead into the break.
Like the start to the game, the Aggies scored the first five points of the second half. But the Huskies started hitting 3-pointers and thwarted any hopes of a comeback by No. 25 USU.
The loss ended a 10-game winning streak by the Aggies, who came into the tournament having won 17 of their last 18.
“It’s been a good year for us, definitely, getting Utah State back to where Utah State basketball needs to be,” Merrill said. “Obviously, this is still very disappointing. We felt like this team had a real opportunity to make that next step for this program and couldn’t get it done tonight.”
The Huskies advance to play top-seeded and third-ranked North Carolina, who beat Iona, 88-73.
This was the eighth straight NCAA Tournament loss for USU, which is now 6-23 in games at the Big Dance. … The Aggies are now 56-19 all-time as a ranked team. … USU went 0-5 this season when trailing at halftime. … The Aggies have outrebounded every opponent this season, with the exception of Houston, San Diego State and Nevada, as USU won the battle on the glass Friday, 35-29. … For just the fifth time this season, the Aggies got outscored in the paint, 26-18. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 23rd straight time and 34th time this season, and now has 1,568 career points, which ranks 10th as he passed Tony Brown (1,564). He finished with 731 points for the season, which ranks fifth. … Taylor has now played in 129 career games at USU, which is the fifth most by any Aggie. … Queta has blocked at least one shot in every game but one this season and had two Friday. He now has 84 for the season, which is a school record and also ranks sixth for a career. … Miller tied his career high in rebounds with five. … The Aggies still lead the all-time series with the Huskies, 5-4.