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Merrill wills Aggies to victory, clinches NCAA berth

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Sam Merrill’s three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left clinched Utah State a spot in the big dance.

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

Entering Saturday, many of the bracketology projections had Utah State not in the field. And when Utah State faced a 16-point deficit in the first half, it appeared those projections would be true.

But Sam Merrill made sure those projections would not be true.

Merrill’s three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining gave Utah State a 59-56 victory in the Mountain West Championship Game over San Diego State.

Not only are the Aggies back-to-back conference champions, but they are going back to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.

After a couple of slow starts, San Diego State came out of the gate strong. The Aggies pounded the paint with Yanni Wetzell to set the tone. His nine first half points and 10 rebounds gave the Aztecs an edge down low against Utah State and Neemias Queta.

A six-minute scoring drought and a 13-minute drought without a field goal also helped the Aztecs jump ahead.

Down by as many as 16 in the first half, Utah State mounted a 10-2 run, thanks to seven points from Merrill and a three from Diogo Brito at the buzzer, to pump some life into the Aggies going into the half.

San Diego State held a 29-21 lead at the half. The Aztecs utilized Aggie turnovers, eight of them, to score eight points to take the lead.

The two teams traded baskets through the rest of the second half. Utah State took its first lead at the nine-minute mark with a three-pointer by Merrill to go up 44-42.

When San Diego State went back up 47-44, the Aggies went on a 7-0 run, capped off by a one-handed dunk and one by Queta to jump ahead 51-47.

Utah State held the lead until Malachi Flynn made a jumper to retake the lead 56-55.

Prior to his heroic shot, Merrill missed one of two free throws, which tied the game at 56, and at the final possession, the Aggies put the ball in the hands of their best player.

Smith had a timeout in his pocket, but he did not use it and relied on Merrill to win the game for Utah State.

Merrill, who played all 40 minutes, finished with 27 points for the second straight night to lead the Aggies. He was named the tournament MVP. Queta had 15 points and eight rebounds.

Flynn finished with 16 points for San Diego State.

Selection Sunday is eight days away, both teams will await to learn where they will play in the NCAA Tournament.