Utah State HC: "That Was A Shot For The Ages"

Sam Merrill's game-winning three against San Diego State has the Aggies back in the NCAA Tournament

Zach Gelb
March 11, 2020 - 9:35 am
Utah State Sam Merrill

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It’s been several days since Utah State’s Sam Merrill sent the Aggies to back-to-back Mountain West championships – and the NCAA Tournament – with his game-winning three-pointer against San Diego State, and head coach Craig Smith is still pinching himself.

“Oh, man, I am a little bit,” Smith said on The Zach Gelb Show. “It’s been a heck of a ride. We do have a phenomenal group of young men. Obviously we have a talented group, but we have just tremendous chemistry and character. [We’ve] been through a lot of ups and downs this year with injuries, but we’re excited to repeat and I know our guys are pumped to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully this year we can do some damage.”

San Diego State (30-2) beat Utah State twice during the regular season. In fact, the Aztecs started the year 26-0. But Merrill’s three denied them the conference tournament title.

“It was an epic game,” Smith said. “It truly was two heavyweights going toe-to-toe. Certainly San Diego State, all the accolades – and deservedly so. No. 5 in the country, they’re very well-coached, they’re amazingly talented – they’re tremendous on both sides of the ball.”

Utah State (26-8), however, didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. After all, the Aggies were a preseason Top 25 team.

“For us to finish the way we did – I think we scored 48 points on them the last 22 minutes, which is almost unheard of going against San Diego State – and obviously it culminated with Sam,” Smith said. “We got a stop, and we knew we had the ball last. What’s ironic a little bit is we’re not an iso team. Sam really isn’t an iso player. Two years ago when I got hired, we put in a couple iso sets for him and he’s like, ‘It’s not really my deal.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I can tell.’ But he’s worked hard on his game – in the offseason, especially – tightening up his handle, shooting it better off the bounce. He’s always been a great shooter, but he really worked hard on that facet of it.”

Merrill, a 6-5 senior, leads Utah State in scoring (19.7 points per game) and assists (3.9) and is shooting 41.0 percent from three-point range.

“Sam is a legendary player here,” Smith said. “He’ll go down as the No. 2 all-time leading scorer, No. 2 in assists. We just said, ‘We’re going to put the ball in his hands. If he makes the shot, we’re going to the Big Dance. If he misses, we’ll go to overtime.’ That was a shot for the ages, without a question. Everybody in the stands knew he was getting the ball. Certainly our guys knew he was getting the ball. Big-time players make big-time plays, and he certainly made one.”