This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Logan • With their lead climbing late in the second half, Sam Merrill stepped into a passing lane and snagged himself an interception. He dribbled around the nearest New Mexico defender and was closing in on the hoop. A simple lay-up was available for the 6-foot-4 freshman guard to add to the Aggies' cushion.
But Merrill did not take it. Instead, he stopped a foot short of the hoop, pivoted, turned his head and found Shane Rector and scooped a pass to his senior teammate for his eighth assist in Utah State's 79-75 win over the Lobos.
"I focus on making the easy play," Merrill said afterward, "because I've never really been much of a flashy guy."
"I didn't want to get blocked," he quipped.
The former Bountiful High star might not fashion himself as a flashy player, but he's in the midst of making that hopeful transition USU head coach Tim Duryea hoped would come sooner than later. Merrill was rewarded with his first collegiate start against the Lobos Wednesday in Logan, where he put on the kind of display that justified the move, finishing with 13 points and those eight assists a season-high for any USU player this year.
Merrill got word Monday that he'd be replacing Rector in the starting lineup. He had 48 hours to stew over what would be his first start in nearly three years. His pregame routine didn't change, he said, because his role doesn't change. Starter or not, his goal is to find a flow in the game and be proactive. Duryea said he thought the Aggies (7-7, 1-2 MWC), then riding a three-game skid, needed a "change in the vibe."
"It's not like I've never started a basketball game," Merrill said. "It wasn't too big of a deal."
He returned from his LDS mission in Nicaragua last June. Duryea said Merrill came back overweight from his two years in Central America and needed to get back into basketball shape. When Merrill showed up in the fall fit and ready to roll, "that told me all I needed to know about Sam," Duryea said.
"Really from that point on, he's been ahead of the curve," the USU coach added. "He's such a smart player and has such a great feel for the game that once he kind of got used to being back on the court off his mission, he's been tremendous from Day 1."
USU senior Jalen Moore wasn't at all caught off guard by Merrill's play Wednesday or throughout the Aggies' first part of the season. The two used to tangle in the 4A playoff tournament when they were then friendly rivals. Moore still recounts the semifinal playoff game in which he drained a half-court shot at the buzzer to send Sky View by Merrill's Braves into the state title game.
"He had 35 points on us," Moore said. "This is nothing new for him. He's just a good ball player, a solid guy that you want on your team and he just makes plays for himself and for others. He just wants to win. That's what we need."
UNLV at Utah State
At the Smith Spectrum, Logan
Tipoff » 4 p.m.
TV » CBS Sports Network
Radio » 610 AM, 1280 AM, 102.1 FM
Records » Utah State 7-7, 1-2; UNLV 8-8, 1-2
Series history » UNLV leads 31-4
Last meeting » UNLV, 80-68 (Jan. 19, 2016)
About the Aggies » Senior Jalen Moore (17.7 PPG) has now eclipsed the double-digit mark for 27-straight games. … Moore is one of 30 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, recognizing student-athletes nationwide. … Freshman Koby McEwen is second on the team in points per game (14.1) and is tied for the lead in rebounds per game with 4.9. … Senior Shane Rector leads the team in steals with 23. … The Aggies are 5-3 at home this season.
About the Rebels » UNLV is coming off a 77-59 home loss to Boise State on Wednesday. … The Runnin' Rebels are in their first year under new head coach Marvin Menzies. … UNLV is led in scoring by sophomore combo guard Jalen Poyser (13.8 PPG) and senior forward Tyrell Green (13.1 PPG). … UNLV is 15-3 all-time at Utah State, but is 1-1 in its last two trips to Logan.