Utah State clinches 2020 NCAA tournament's first auto bid with a dramatic long-range dagger

Henry Bushnell
·2 min read
Utah State reacts after Sam Merrill (5) sunk a 3-point basket with seconds remaining in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Sam Merrill (5) celebrates with Utah State teammates after his Mountain West-winning 3-pointer. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The 2020 NCAA tournament remains two weeks away. But the madness of March, as it almost always does, arrived early on Saturday, in the first of 32 conference tournament championship games.

Utah State and San Diego State were tied at 56 in Las Vegas. The shot clock was turned off. A Mountain West title and an automatic bid were on the line. And Utah State star Sam Merrill did this:

Merrill stared down San Diego State’s best defender, K.J. Feagin. He stared down the entire Thomas and Mack Center. He stared down a game-winner for the ages, the biggest shot of his glittering career. And he hit it.

Malachi Flynn’s subsequent halfcourt heave with less than a second remaining rimmed out. Utah State bench players and cheerleaders and fans spilled onto the court. They were relieved, but also ecstatic. Because they’re going dancing.

The ramifications of Utah State’s upset

Utah State was squarely on the bubble heading into Saturday. A loss would have given it an excruciating eight-day wait. And that was looking likely when the Aggies bricked their way to a 27-11 deficit with less than three minutes remaining in the first half.

But they clawed back, slowly but surely. A late-first-half flurry raised spirits and closed the gap. They took a lead, then went back and forth with the 30-1 Aztecs. Merrill and his 29 points led the way. Points 27, 28 and 29 were the difference.

And thus, debates about resumes and strength of schedule and NET flew out the window. Utah State is in. And the bubble shrunk by one spot, because, of course, San Diego State is in as well. The Aztecs just might not be on the top line.

Most projections pegged SDSU as a No. 1 seed. A Mountain West title would have erased most doubt. A loss, however, injects more of it. San Diego State’s seeding fate now likely rests with Baylor, Gonzaga and Dayton.

A No. 2 seed, however, might actually be preferable. As the fourth of four No. 1s, San Diego State was likely heading to the New York regional. As the top No. 2, they’d likely be placed in Los Angeles. Of course, they would’ve loved a conference title. But it isn’t the biggest prize. And falling off the top line won’t really impact their pursuit of that.

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