Utah State returned to form to snap a 4-game losing streak, soundly defeating Air Force 71-49 on Wednesday night at the Spectrum. Sophomore guards Sam Merrill and Koby McEwen led the Aggies with 21 and 20 points, respectively.
“As a team, we played really solid,” said junior forward Quinn Taylor. “We guarded really well in the first half, and then came out in the second half and guarded even better. We were able to turn up the intensity and turn our stops into points, kept rolling what we started in the first half.”
Neither team was able to establish much of an offensive rhythm in the first half, as both teams struggled from behind the 3-point line, combining to go 3-26 from deep in the first 20 minutes. The Aggies entered the half with a 29-25 lead, relying largely on points in the paint to keep the offense afloat.
“I would rate tonight as our best defensive performance over a whole game,” said USU head coach Tim Duryea. “We knew coming in that we had to take rhythm threes away early and not let them see the ball go in, and have that confidence they’ve had the last couple of games. 1-15 from 3 at the half, I think, was the biggest stat.”
The second half brought a much different story, however, as USU began the second stanza on a 13-4 run sparked by a combined trio of 3s from Merrill and McEwen. The defense continued to clamp down on Air Force’s Princeton-style offense, holding the Falcons to 32.7 percent shooting for the game and 13.6 percent on 3-point attempts. The offense continued to find spaces to exploit, at one point outscoring Air Force 37-17 during the second half.
Taylor added 13 points and eight rebounds. Junior forward Dwayne Brown Jr. led USU with nine rebounds while also adding five points. Sophomore guard Diogo Brito added nine points, plus five rebounds and a team-leading six assists.
Merrill’s night continued a stellar string of games for the sophomore. Over his past three games, Merrill has shot 75 percent from the field, and an astounding 81.3 percent from behind the arc.
“He’s playing at a high level, and I just follow his lead and play off him right now, because he’s shooting the ball like crazy right now,” McEwen said. “He’s barely missing. Our team feeds off Sam (Merrill), I feed off him. When he’s hitting shots, it seems to trickle down to all of us and we all start hitting shots.”
The win snapped a 4-game losing streak for the Aggies, who were looking to keep pace in the Mountain West standings after slipping to ninth place after standing as high as third earlier in the season. USU is now 11-11 on the season, and 4-5 in MW play.
“We’ll work at it, we’ll get better at it,” McEwen said. “We’ll put this thing together for us to win more basketball games.”
Utah State will next travel on the road to face off with Fresno State on Saturday. In the first matchup of the season, the Aggies closed out regulation on a 10-0 run to force overtime, eventually defeating the Bulldogs 81-79 at the Spectrum.