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Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal
Utah State guard Sam Merrill (5) drives to the basket as Fresno State forward Nate Grimes defends during an NCAA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

By Jeff Hunter

For the Deseret News

LOGAN — Craig Smith’s first taste of defeat at the Spectrum was a particularly bitter one.

After leading for all but 20 seconds of Wednesday night’s game against Fresno State, the Aggies surrendered a 3-pointer to FSU guard Braxton Huggins with five seconds left to give the Bulldogs their one and only lead of the night.

“It was a good game, but obviously a devastating loss,” USU freshman guard Brock Miller said following Utah State’s 78-77 loss to Fresno State on its home floor.

“We led the whole game until the very end. They made some tough plays. Credit to Fresno State, they came out, especially in the second half, and really made some tough shots.”

The Bulldogs (3-0 in the Mountain West, 12-3 overall) have now won 10 of their last 11 games under first-year head coach Justin Hutson, whose bench includes long-time Utah State assistant coach Tarvish Felton.

" We led the whole game until the very end. They made some tough plays. Credit to Fresno State, they came out, especially in the second half, and really made some tough shots. "
USU freshman guard Brock Miller

Huggins, a senior transfer from New Mexico State, led the way for Fresno State, connecting on 12 of 21 field attempts and 8 of 13 shots from 3-point range on his way to a career-high 33 points.

The Aggies (1-2, 11-5) entered Wednesday’s contest a perfect 7-0 at home under Smith during the coach’s inaugural season at Utah State. And other than a 2-2 tie in the first minute of the game, the home team led the entire way until Huggins buried his well-contested trey from the top of the key in the final seconds.

Suddenly down by one, the Aggies still had a shot at winning the game, but after a timeout, junior guard Sam Merrill’s 3-point attempt from the left side of the arc in heavy traffic ended well short of the basket. Senior forward Quinn Taylor managed to snag the airball with one second left but was unable to complete the play while hanging in mid-air as the final buzzer sounded.

“We wanted it our playmakers' hands,” Smith said of Merrill, USU’s leading scorer. “But it’s one of those things where they’re obviously going to know who’s going to get the ball. ... But certainly, in hindsight, I wish we would have done something else because we just didn’t get a very clean look at the basket.”

Utah State lost despite shooting 51 percent as a team and finishing with five players in double figures, including Merrill (16 points), freshman center Neemias Queta (16 points, nine rebounds, six blocks), Miller (11 points) and Taylor (10 points). Sophomore guard Abel Porter also doubled his career-best in points scored with 14 points in 26 minutes.

Fresno State trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half and was down 38-30 at halftime, but considering that the Bulldogs shot just 33 percent to the Aggies’ 60 percent, Hutson likely felt grateful to only be trailing by eight points at intermission.

“We had to stick with it. We were telling our guys that at every break and at halftime. You've got to stick with it,” Hutson said. “We didn't play very good defense at all in the first half, then they came out and shot 41 percent in the second half and 11 percent from three.

“We were pretty intense at halftime,” Hutson added. “I wanted to get on some guys, not necessarily in their face, but I wanted to challenge some guys.

It sure seemed that way to the Aggies, who saw their shooting fall to 41 percent in the second half, including just 1 of 9 from 3-point range, while the Bulldogs seemingly couldn’t miss. Fresno State connected on his first four 3-point attempts of the second half, and even with the Aggies contesting nearly every shot, the Bulldogs kept knocking down attempt after attempt, especially Huggins and junior guard Noah Blackwell.

Blackwell, who went 0 for 3 without a point in the first half, made 5 of 6 shots in the second half and finished with 13 points despite getting into foul trouble down the stretch.

But each time the Bulldogs made a push, the Aggies seemed to respond just enough to hold onto the lead, often thanks to free throws. However, after draining 15 of 17 free-throw attempts to start the second half, Utah State left the door open a little bit by making just three of their final six free throws.

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A well-defended 3-pointer by Huggins with 1:24 left literally left Smith scratching his head with the Aggies clinging to a 76-75, and after Queta connected on one of two free-throw attempts with 22 seconds left, Huggins came right back with another 3-pointer despite having Merrill all over him.

“You have to give the Huggins kid credit,” Smith said. “Those last two threes he hit were not easy shots. Sam was guarding him. Sam is an excellent defender and not many guys make shots on him. Sam uses his length and his intelligence.

“People are going to remember that game-winner, but they'll forget about the one right before that. Sam was right there, in his face and he shot a 22-footer to hit nothing but net.”