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Aggies and Cowboys overcome double-digit deficits, advance to semifinals

A team on the bubble and a Cinderella will meet in the second semifinal tonight

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- New Mexico vs Utah State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

#2 Utah State 75, #7 New Mexico 70

In March, life on the bubble is always challenging, the bubble can pop at any moment. And your chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament is gone.

Down by as many as 11, with its two best players in foul trouble, and with its point guard injured, Utah State’s bubble was destined to pop.

But senior Sam Merrill would not let tonight be his final game in the Aggies uniform. He put Utah State on his back, with his 29 points, and carried the Aggies past the Lobos 75-70.

“It was a great game,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “We had to overcome lot of different things tonight… credit to our guys, to find a way to win… really, really proud of our effort and that’s one down and got to be ready to go tomorrow.”

Smith mentioned some of the challenges his team faced in the game; “Foul trouble with Queta gets two in the first five minutes. Gets his third with about a minute and a half to go…Sam gets three or four fouls in the first five minutes of the second half and then our starting point guard, Abel Porter was hurt and wasn’t able to go back in.”

“So now all of a sudden, they’re, it’s a feeding frenzy out there and we had some guys out there in some different positions and trying to break the pressure.”

With the momentum shifting towards the Lobos, Smith called a timeout to get everyone settled, and the Aggies went on its run to win the game.

Merrill mentioned that in the timeout, coach Smith reminded them to be poised. “I don’t know exactly what was mentioned… Coach just kept telling us, just stay poised, stay calm… So, the mindset was just stay poised, but got to play with a sense of urgency and that’s what we did.”

It did not appear the game would be close, Utah State jumped out to a 22-9 lead midway through the first half. But thanks to 16 first half points from Jaquan Lyle, the Lobos made a run and tied it up at the half, 33-33.

New Mexico went on a 13-1 run in the second half to take its first lead of the game. The Lobo lead grew to a high as 11, at 57-46 with just over nine minutes remaining in the second half.

Utah State went on a 29-13 run when Merrill came back to the floor after sitting once, he picked up his fourth foul. He picked up 18 of his 29 points in the second half and was a perfect 5 of 5 from the field in the final 20 minutes.

For the Aggies, Diogo Brito stepped up late with his teammates down. Brito provided Utah State with a ball handling option. He also made a key layup, that was deflected by a Lobos player, to put Utah State ahead 70-68.

And he knocked down a three-pointer with 68 second left to put Utah State ahead 73-70.

New Mexico coach Paul Weir said his inability to draw up plays to stop Merrill was one of the deciding factor.

“We kind of went back and forth between man and zone there late to stop Merrill, but I just, I couldn’t coach us well enough to a victory. These guys played their hearts out. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t create enough defensive stops down the stretch for us to get the victory.”

Jaquan Lyle had 20 points for the Lobos and 10 of 18 points from Corey Manigault came from the free-throw line.

Notably absent from New Mexico was guard Vante Hendrix. Weir felt that Hendrix did not have the focus necessary, given the stake of the tournament.

“Really didn’t do anything serious at all,” Weir said. “Given the time, the intensity of today in the moment, I just felt like we were better off without him. It really wasn’t anything serious or anything to worry about but given the nature of how important I wanted to treat this past week and what I wanted out of our guys just didn’t quite meet my expectations.”

Hendrix later said in a tweet that he was not aware on what he did wrong. Weir said his future with the program is “to be determined.”

#11 Wyoming 74, #3 UNR 71

The clock has not struck midnight yet. After its upset win over Colorado State in the first round, Wyoming pulled off another upset with a 74-71 victory over UNR in the quarterfinals.

The Cowboys had won just two conference games entering the conference tournament. And now, they have won two games in two days, and are two wins away from a Mountain West championship.

“Gutsy performance by our guys,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “Stayed the course even being down 10 in the second half, just stayed together and continued to chip away on the defensive end of the floor and was proud of them of what they did in the sense of sharing the basketball offensively,”

Wyoming went into halftime down by 10. Even though the Cowboys were 45 percent from three, they were 33.3 percent from the field.

In the first half, UNR could not be stopped on offense. Seven first half three-pointers and shooting 46.7 percent from field put the Wolf Pack ahead by double digits. Wyoming had a tough time handling the Wolf Pack guards. Jazz Johnson and Lindsey Drew each had 10 points after 20 minutes.

But the deficit did not rattle the young Cowboys. They relied on lessons learned yesterday, and throughout the season to help get them the victory.

“We have had a lot of close games and we just didn’t close them out,” Jake Hendricks, who had 12 points, said. “We made a lot of mistakes. And I think down the stretch last night and tonight we fixed those mistakes and it’s just given us confidence that we can beat anybody.”

Wyoming took its first lead when Hunter Thompson, who had 17 points, hit a three-pointer to go up 62-61.

The season has been a wild ride for the Cowboys, at 2-16 and the 11-seed, they could have easily mailed it in and bowed out in the first round, but that is not in their DNA. All the losses, mainly the close losses, have given them confidence to hang with anyone.

“It’s been a great time,” Hendrick said. “Like you said, we have been in a lot of close games this year. So, it’s given us, even though we lost, it’s given us confidence that we can play with everybody in the conference, even though we’re 2-16.”

Kwane Marble lead Wyoming with 24 points. Marble was also tasked with guarding Jalen Harris, a member of the Mountain West all-conference first-team. He held Harris to 2 of 13 shooting and forced him to foul out.

UNR, just like New Mexico, will have to look back at the tape and see what went wrong in a game where they blew a 12-point lead. The loss is a reminder to the Wolf Pack that these tournament games are 40-minute games, and you have to play a full 40.

“They out-rebounded us,” UNR coach Steve Alford said, “they took care of the ball better, they got better shots, they were better defensively tonight. I thought they were the tougher team tonight and that’s kind of what happens in tournament play.”

Lindsey Drew finished 19 points on 80 percent shooting for UNR.

The Cowboys are the lowest seed to make a Mountain West semifinal, they already became the first 11-seed to win a game in the Mountain West tournament since the league expanded to 11 teams.

Wyoming and Utah State will face each other in the second semifinal tonight at 8:30 p.m (PT).