Already facing a grueling road trip — five games in 11 days in four different states — the task for the Aggies became more difficult when sophomore guard Koby McEwen injured his ankle in the final home game before the trip.
The team responded however, pushing last year’s NCAA runner-up Gonzaga deep into the second-half in a matchup in Spokane. A dispiriting loss to Portland State pushed the team under .500 for the season (and 1-2 against Big Sky opponents), but the Aggies again responded with consecutive victories against Northeastern and New Hampshire to improve to 4-3.
“We came out with probably the best defensive mindset, defensive mentality that we’ve had in probably a couple years,” head coach Tim Duryea said after the 77-63 win against New Hampshire. “Today was a program game. It was about who wanted to show up and compete in an empty arena at noon on our eighth day on the road. Our guys showed a lot of character, a lot of togetherness and I’m really proud of them.”
Sophomore guard Sam Merrill led the Aggies in the first four games of the trip, averaging just more than 20 points per game, nearly three 3-pointers per contest and three assists.
“Sam Merrill always leads the way, is very composed and gets us going,” Duryea said. “For three or four games in a row now, he has gotten us started offensively.”
McEwen made a return against Northeastern, scoring nine points in 25 minutes of play. The injury is less about structural damage to the ankle and more of a “pain tolerance issue,” Duryea said.
“He’s got a ways to go, both rust-wise and just pure health-wise,” Duryea said. “He was severely inhibited out there today. He also got three baskets, so he toughed his way to being productive. That was a bonus for our team and gave our team a little confidence when he started the game.”
Junior guard DeAngelo Isby assisted Merrill by picking up some of the scoring burden, scoring in double-digits in three of the four games. Fellow junior forward Dwayne Brown, Jr. also stood out during the stretch, recording his first double-double with 13 points and 15 rebounds in the loss to Portland State.
Next up for the Aggies: the undefeated Crusaders of Valparaiso in the latest edition of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge on Tuesday. The Aggies will then return to the Spectrum for a blackout game against rival BYU on Saturday evening.
Editor’s note: This post was updated to correct the team’s record against Big Sky opponents this season.