A sluggish first half gave way to a high-flying 90-64 blowout in the second, as Utah State men’s basketball snuffed out San Jose State to stay in Vegas for another round of hoops in the 2017 Mountain West Tournament.
The game’s opening minutes were clouded by two offenses unable to find any sort of rhythm. The Aggies’ typically dangerous shooting came out cold, overcast by inexperienced tournament jitters. Their defense played a step slow, repeatedly sending the Spartans to the foul line and putting Alexis Dargenton and Norbert Janicek in early trouble with two fouls apiece. San Jose cashed in on nine of its 11 free throw attempts, eclipsing Utah State’s 1-4 first half effort.
“There was some anxiety early in the first half,” said USU head coach Tim Duryea. “But by the time I got to halftime I was relieved to be tied at half, to be honest. I just did not think we played with any rhythm or fluidity in the first half, at all.”
Then, in the span of 15 minutes and change, the skies cleared while the Aggies managed to remake themselves into the team that slammed top-seeded UNR back in January. Mountain West freshman of the year Koby McEwen ascended to his typical second half form, ripping 11 points from the Spartans’ loosening defense in under three minutes. Sam Merrill joined his freshman companion in providing a fully operational 3-point shooting backcourt machine, while tournament veteran Jalen Moore stalked the hardwood preparing his own unholy vengeance on the Spartans, the rim and the suffocating pull of gravity.
With a slim 52-51 lead and ten minutes to play, Utah State made its move. McEwen fired at will, striking on 9-of-12 of his attempts from the floor — including a flawless 5-5 from beyond the arc. Julion Pearre drained a three in his typical “aw shucks” fashion. The Aggies tallied 13 straight, and then Moore put a dent in the universe.
It began with Merrill snagging the rebound off an errant SJSU jumper, driving up past halfcourt before finding a streaking afro near the arc — Moore only needed two steps before carrying a video game style one-handed jam through an innocent Spartan defender to the rack for an emphatic dunk and a foul.
“I just got out and ran and Sam found me,” Moore said. “And after that I was like, I’m just taking off… That’s always fun to do.”
The attention-grabbing play managed to further extend what would become an 18-0 Aggie run, due in equal parts to efficient 63 percent second half field goal shooting and lockdown defense hounding the Spartans at every turn.
“That was credit to our coaches,” McEwen said. “They prepped us pretty well, watching film. We know — they make us watch film a lot. We know a lot of their players’ tendencies. So we just went out and executed the defensive game plan.”
The Aggies closed the game on a 38-13 run, effectively silencing SJSU’s hopes for a surprise tournament run. McEwen finished the contest leading all scorers with 27 points in 35 minutes — the best postseason performance by a freshman in program history.
“Every time I felt right taking the shot I just shot it, and just my instincts took over,” McEwen said. “And usually when I do that, good things happen.”
Moore, a senior playing his last tournament in an Aggie uniform, netted 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting all while grabbing seven rebounds. Merrill had his fingerprints all over the game with six rebounds, three steals, eight assists and zero turnovers.
“When you come to the tournament the first game, the first half of the first game is hard because they all obviously know it’s single-elimination,” Duryea said. “You’re fighting for every possession. You’re fighting for your life. You’re fighting to get to the next day.”
Utah State returns to action Thursday at 12 p.m., facing top-ranked University of Nevada-Reno in the quarterfinal round.