Late surge lifts Aggies over Falcons

For the first time since the 2012-13 season, Utah State is a 20-win team thanks to its 76-62 road victory over Air Force on Saturday afternoon.

The early goings of the game weren’t pretty for the Aggies (20-6, 10-3) as the Falcons (10-15, 5-8) were able to build a 10-3 lead three minutes in. The Academy were able to hold their lead until almost midway through the first half before a 17-2 run put USU up permanently. And while Air Force hung close, a 15-4 push by the Aggies turned the game from an six-point contest 48-42 into a semi-blowout.

Aggies’ head coach Craig Smith said that during one of the early timeouts of the opening half, they simply talked about focussing on the things they could control — a staple of the first-year coach’s philosophy.

“We came together and talked to the players to just do your job,” Smith said. “We talked to the coaches to just do your job and not worry about the things that are uncontrollable and let’s worry about what we can control and unite. From that point on, we really came together and had a lot of great performances.”

A major boon in the first-half comeback was the play of junior Diogo Brito. The 6-foot-5 guard scored eight points in less than three minutes during USU’s big run. Brito finished with just 11 points but tied a career-high with 11 rebounds while also getting four steals.

“If that wasn’t his best game of the year, it was one of his top two in his career,” Smith said of Brito. “He really impacted the game in a major way.”

In the second half, Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta took over. Merrill scored 15 of his team-high 20 points in the second on 4 of 8 shooting overall and 3 of 5 from deep. Queta, who picked up two quick fouls to start the game, had eight points, five rebounds and a blocked shot in the second half, finishing with 17 points and six boards.

Saturday was just the third time Air Force has been downed by more than seven points at home.

“We played really hard and we knew it as going to be tough,” Brito said. “We’ve been here before and this is really one of the toughest places to play in the league. We know that and other teams have felt that too. We really grinded it out and we were able to come out on top.”

Utah State will play at home Wednesday against New Mexico. The Aggies will have a chance to secure a season sweep against a fifth conference opponent (Air Force, UNLV, San Jose State, Wyoming). Last time the two teams met, USU won on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Abel Porter.