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Bracket Busted: Utah State upsets Boise State 78-75 to advance to MW semifinals Story by Daniel Hansen — Photos by Sydney Oliver and Chantelle McCall

Utah State trailed Boise State by 10 points with 15 minutes remaining in the game.

The Aggies stared straight at the end of their season and said, “not today.”

“The goal for us here is to win the tournament,” head coach Tim Duryea said. “That’s the only way we get to where we want to go. Winning a quarterfinal game is great; it’s a step in the process for us being a good team in this league, but it’s not the end goal.”

In one of its most impressive victories since joining the Mountain West conference, Utah State upset the No. 2-seeded Broncos 78-75 in a hectic game on Thursday in Las Vegas. USU led for only two minutes and eight seconds in the contest.

The Broncos had several attempts to take the lead or force overtime in the final minute of the game, as sheer chaos ensued on the court with the Aggies committing three turnovers in the final 25 seconds. A steal by Merrill, an insurance free throw from McEwen, and a missed 3-pointer from Boise State star Chandler Hutchison later and the Aggies found themselves in the semifinals of the MW tournament for the first time in school history.

“I told the coaches that I wanted to take the ball out to secure an inbounds, then I go and turn it over. That was frustrating,” Merrill said. “We were able to get the ball back and then they had a jump ball. And then Koby (McEwen) gets a free throw. Our coaches did a really good job of keeping us calm … All we had to do was buckle down and get a stop and fortunately, we were able to.”

Boise State started the game at blistering speeds, making its first six shots as part of a 20-9 run in the first six minutes of the game. Despite the onslaught, the Aggies remained calm, climbing back within five points over the next four minutes.

“It started off with stops, one possession at a time,” McEwen said. “Once we did that, we kind of brought the game down. Get one stop, get a bucket and another stop. Once we broke the game down like that, the game started to slow down for us and we slowly caught back up.”

The Broncos then responded, pushing the lead back to double digits, threatening to pull away from USU before halftime as BSU guard Lexus Williams tallied 14 points in the first half. Again, the Aggies stayed calm, with Merrill draining a 3 at the halftime buzzer to keep USU close heading into the locker room with a 40-32 deficit.

“Sam made a big three before the half to give us a little momentum going into the locker room,” Duryea said. “Proud of our guys for hanging in there, staying together. Boise State is tough … So proud of these guys.”

Utah State built upon that momentum, starting the second half on an 8-2 run to close the deficit to only two points. The Broncos proved their talent, however, pushing the lead back to 51-41 in less than three minutes of game time. Yet again, the Aggies remained calm, battling back with a 14-3 run of their own to take their first lead of the game at 55-54 with 11:12 remaining in the contest. Merrill scored 10 straight points for USU during the run.

“The best players have to play the best when it comes to surviving,” McEwen said. “I thought Sam did a tremendous job today scoring the ball and defending well.”

Over the final 10 minutes of the game, the teams were engaged in an all-out war of basketball with neither team able to build a lead larger than five points. In games decided by single digits, Boise State had gone 11-4 entering Thursday’s contest and looked poise to win again. But the Aggies stayed calm, with McEwen scoring 10 points during that stretch to carry USU to the finish line.

Finally, with 31 seconds left in the game, Merrill drained his seventh 3-pointer of the night to give Utah State a four-point lead, their largest of the game.

“It’s survive and advance,” McEwen said. “I knew that I had to keep shooting. I was getting good looks. The second half, I had to be more aggressive getting in the paint, try to free up myself by getting guys open shots. Once they started hitting shots, the lane started to open up for me. So I had to just stick with it, and it worked out for us.”

After Hutchison’s desperation 3 clanged off the iron, Merrill raised his arms over his head in celebration as sophomore guard Diogo Brito heaved the ball into the air. McEwen ran towards the USU bench and into a flying chest bump with freshman forward Daron Henson as the team celebrated one of the biggest wins in recent program history.

“This is the farthest we’ve been in our five years in the league in the tournament,” Duryea said. “It’s been a grind for us. We went into the locker room after the game and basically, we’ve got the days numbered. … They were calm. We changed day two to day three.”

With the victory squarely in the rearview mirror, the team quickly moved its focus to the semifinals.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to win quarterfinal games,” Merrill said. “I grew up wanting to play in the (NCAA) tournament. We’re one step closer and we have to bring it tomorrow.”

The Thomas & Mack Center was filled with Wyoming and New Mexico fans waiting for their quarterfinal matchup which immediately followed Utah State’s game. Fans from both schools cheered heavily for the Aggie victory in the closing moments. Afterwards, McEwen had a message for those fans.

“We know why they were doing that,” McEwen said in a serious tone. “They don’t want to see us.”

USU will play New Mexico on Friday night at 9:30 MST.

The Aggies are 14-5 all-time in conference tournament semifinal games and will look to advance to their first conference final since the team’s championship run during the 2011 WAC tournament.

Merrill led all scorers with 28 points on 8-15 shooting, including 7-10 from behind the arc, adding five rebounds and five assists. McEwen added 14 points with eight rebounds and six assists. Boise State’s Williams finished with 24 points to lead the Broncos. Hutchison scored only 14 points on 4-13 shooting in the final game of his career.

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