MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica (AP) — Overcoming a 19-point deficit is like chopping down a tree according to No. 15 Utah State coach Craig Smith.
Down 54-35 with 16:32 remaining, No. 15 Utah State hacked away by making its first five 3-pointers of the second half. Alphonso Anderson’s 3 cut it to 71-67.
“We always tell our guys we just got to keep chopping wood,” Smith said. “You don’t cut down that tree in one big swipe of the axe. You just got to keep going and keep going and you don’t know when that tree is going to fall. And fortunately for us, it fell with about 30 seconds to go in the game.”
Sam Merrill made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 57 seconds left and Utah State overcame LSU in the second half for an 80-78 victory Friday night at the Jamaica Classic.
Anderson missed a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left, and LSU grabbed the defensive rebound, but Skylar Mays had it poked away and the Aggies passed it around to run out the clock. LSU had 11 second-half turnovers.
Merrill and Anderson each scored 24 points for the Aggies (6-0). Merrill, the Mountain West player of the year last season, was 5 of 9 from 3-point range, made 9 of 10 free throws and had eight assists. Justin Bean had 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Diogo Brito scored 12 points.
“Sam Merrill did Sam Merrill things,” Smith said. “He just really put us on his back. Not only on the court but at halftime, just talking to guys ‘Let’s go, let’s get it going, we’re not playing well,” and having that kind of leadership from a guy that’s been there for a long, long time.”
Mays scored a career-high 30 points for LSU (3-2). He was 10-of-13 shooting with five 3-pointers. Darius Days and Emmitt Williams each scored 14 points.
LSU shot 47% from the field, snapping Utah State’s run of holding its last four opponents to less than 40%.
LSU made six 3-pionters in the first 8 minutes, using a 14-2 run to build an early 28-13 lead. The Tigers finished the half 9 of 18 from distance and shot 52% overall. Days led the way for LSU with 14 points to help build a 44-30 lead.
“We played really well. We were prepared,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “The turnover bug got us again in the second half. … We lost our composure a little bit. You play a team as good as they are, you got to be able to play for 40 minutes and we played for about 36.”
Utah State’s starters were held to 14 points in the first half, but Anderson kept them within reach with nine points off the bench, including a tip-in at the buzzer.
Utah State: The Aggies improved to 62-18 as an AP-ranked team after extending their run to six straight games with 80-plus points. USU’s ranking is the highest for the program since the 1970-71 season when it was as high as No. 9.
LSU: The Tigers barely missed out again on an opportunity to pad their resume with a nonconference win against a ranked opponent. They lost 84-82 at then-No. 23 VCU on Nov. 13. Just like against the Aggies, LSU had an opportunity to tie or go ahead in the final seconds, but Mays turned it over to the Rams with one second left.
“I thought the VCU game, we probably deserved to lose that. We deserved to win this one,” Wade said. “Just disappointing. We let a golden opportunity slip away against a great, great team.”
PLAYING OUR STYLE
Merrill credited the Aggies’ experience for playing more like themselves in the second half.
“I think we’re a veteran team,” Merrill said. “We’ve been there before, maybe not a deficit like that. I thought it was interesting Diogo kept saying, ‘We’re going to win this game, we’re going to win this game,’ because we knew that we were not playing our style of basketball. So, once we figured it out and, frankly, toughened up a little bit and realized that we can play with the big boys, we started playing a lot better.”
Utah State will play North Texas on Sunday.
LSU will play Rhode Island on Sunday.