Instant Reaction: Overtime thriller gives CSU fans reason to be optimistic about the future

A new era of Mountain West basketball is upon us.

Under first-year head coach Craig Smith, Utah State men’s basketball (25-6, 15-3) secured its first-ever league championship with a 100-96 overtime victory over Colorado State (12-18, 7-10) at Moby Arena Tuesday night. After defeating the Rams, the Aggies have now won 14 of its last 15 games, including a slim victory over No. 12 Nevada over the weekend.

While I have already covered why it’s pointless to put too much weight into first-year comparisons of Smith and Niko Medved, the midweek showdown between former coworkers served as a reminder that these are two programs trending in the right direction. Both teams battled throughout and when the second half concluded, it took an extra period of basketball to determine the outcome.

“What an unbelievable college basketball game,” Medved said. “I mean just both teams throwing haymakers at each other—they were playing for everything tonight—and I’m really proud of our guys…Some guys gave us absolutely everything they have and as a coach you can’t ask for anything more.”

“Everybody gave great effort—we just didn’t come away with it,” J.D. Paige added postgame.

USU, obviously, has figured things out much quicker than anyone around the league anticipated and as a result the Aggies have very likely already secured a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s great for the league,” Medved said. "They’re an NCAA Tournament team and Nevada is an NCAA Tournament team. I mean if those two teams don’t get in, it’s a crime.”

Led by junior guard Sam Merrill and freshman center Neemias Queta, the Aggies have quickly built a reputation as one of the most disciplined teams in the MW and that was certainly on display Tuesday night. Merrill led all scorers in the game with a career-high 38 points on 15-of-23 shooting and whenever CSU made any kind of run, the veteran would quickly adjust and find a way to re-establish control of the momentum.

“I mean he’s the player of the year in this league,” Medved said of Merrill. “When you watch him on film, he’s as good of a playmaker as there is in our league.”

CSU, on the other hand, has battled the typical highs and lows of a program going through a rebuild throughout the year, and this was also evident on Tuesday. There were moments where a shorthanded Rams squad played with great energy and communicated well on both ends of the floor, but multiple lapses in intensity allowed the Aggies to keep control of the lead for the majority of the contest.

For instance, after J.D. Paige was able to drive down the court and give CSU its second lead of the night with a reverse layup with 4:07 remamining, the Rams failed to get back on defense and Merrill was able to sneak behind for a 3-point play just 7 seconds later. Then, with just over 3:00 on the clock, Kris Martin was unable to handle Nico Carvacho’s pass from the post and recorded a brutal turnover.

Even with all of the errors, CSU had multiple opportunities to secure the upset victory. The Rams led more than once in the final minute and recorded the final shot of regulation—a 3-point attempt from Paige that bounced off the back of the rim. In the end, USU simply outlasted CSU and made more plays down the stretch, as good teams tend to do.

“I got a good look at it, but I just didn’t knock it down,” Paige said.

The loss was definitely disappointing for the Rams, who after trailing by double-digits, forced the game into OT with a valiant comeback effort. But if you are a fan of college basketball, particularly mid-majors, this game was everything you could have hoped for.

“We went out there and fought,” Carvacho said. “I think we just need to keep on battling.”

The Rams will close out the regular season against UNLV on Saturday. While not much is at stake for CSU, the game will CSU’s final tuneup before the Mountain West Tournament. It has been a wild season for most of the teams in the league and the annual conference tournament is sure to be equally chaotic.

“Our goal should be to have our best performance of the season on Saturday,” Medved said.