If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by FloridaAggie13 » March 15th, 2020, 4:08 pm

How about copying and pasting for us?

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by BeNo » March 15th, 2020, 4:32 pm

Thanks. Day late and dollar short.

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by BeNo » March 15th, 2020, 4:34 pm

FloridaAggie13 wrote:
March 15th, 2020, 4:08 pm
How about copying and pasting for us?
Exactly. Fishing expedition on my part :D

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by QuackAttackAggie » March 15th, 2020, 5:05 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — It was a typically-cold day on March 25, 2018. It’s always cold in late March in Logan, Utah and this Sunday was no different. That night, there was even a dusting of snow on Craig Smith’s first evening in town. The following morning, Utah State announced Smith as the school’s 19th basketball coach in the history of Aggie basketball. Monday was Day 1 for Smith and already on the docket was a meeting with the player he knew he simply had to have stick around.

Turns out, Sam Merrill and his entire family were already in Logan. That Monday night, Smith met the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard and before he could even make his sales pitch, to plead with the future Aggie legend that USU was the place for him to make his mark in college basketball, Merrill already had an answer for Smith.

“This kid could’ve gone anywhere in the country on a transfer and he was getting calls left and right,” Smith said. “He’s like, ‘Coach, we are all in.’ He grew up an Aggie. This is his dream school.”

Craig Smith is never short on stories or anecdotes, but this is the one the demonstrative basketball coach used this week. Because it all ties together, Smith said. A dream, a dream scenario, and the brass to take a shot that Merrill confidently stepped into and — with the weight of an entire season and career hanging in the balance — drained.

“When he grew up shooting on the driveway, he was dreaming of doing that,” Smith said. “That’s what he was envisioning. Most kids will dream of that at Duke or in the NBA or whatever. No. He dreamt of doing that at Utah State and it just gives me chills still thinking about it.”

Chills will remain forever when remembering this. Shots like the one Merrill hit against No. 6-ranked San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference title game last Saturday are a precursor to chills. It’s in those moments in which spectators can’t even imagine having the gall to take the shot, which is why Merrill’s 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left that clinched USU’s second-consecutive MWC conference crown (not to mention an automatic bid to the 2020 NCAA Tournament) was the first of many mind-bending moments associated with March and college basketball.

The Aggies needed to create their own luck in Las Vegas, having lost at New Mexico on Feb. 29 in the regular-season finale, putting their hopes for an extended run in March very much on thin ice. Merrill ensured that his senior season at the university he grew up rooting for would not be anywhere near the bubble. USU beat the Lobos in a tournament rematch on March 5, upended Wyoming’s hopes of a Cinderella run the next day, and on Saturday, Merrill’s in program lore was further solidified in the 59-56 win over the Aztecs. It was SDSU’s only second loss of the season.

This week, Merrill and Smith both broke down the last minute of the MWC conference title game, proving backstory to a final play call that not only led to the greatest shot in USU men’s basketball history, but as of the first day at the tournament in Vegas, wasn’t really in the cards at all.

With 39.4 seconds remaining, Merrill is fouled with SDSU leading 56-55.

For the first time in his career, Merrill missed a free throw with under a minute left in regulation. The first three-throw attempt was a bit short, bouncing off the front of the rim. Merrill hit the second, tying the game.

Smith called a timeout.

Smith: Well, two possessions before that Sam missed a wide-open 3 where we were already up one. Just missed a wide-open 3. Then they called a timeout and we’re in the huddle and I turn to my assistants and I say, ‘I know they’re going to run this play.’ It’s a play they have, it’s a good play and, sure enough, they did. We were debating which way to guard this play. It’s a simple ball screen, but it just kind of gets you in a mismatch and it just gets you in space. So, anyway, we make our mind up and we guard it a certain way and we didn’t exactly execute it the way we wanted to, and (Malachi) Flynn scores. He just goes to the left and gets a little pull-up and now they’re up one.

SDSU’s Malachi Flynn is handed the ball on the inbounds play on the far side of the court. Smith turns around twice to the USU contingent to try and get the fan base off its feet for SDSU’s upcoming offensive possession. As Smith mentioned, Flynn easily settled for a short jumper the last time the Aztecs ran the play that USU knew was coming.

Merrill: All they’re trying to do is get a switch. And we actually talked about it before they ran it the first time. We were trying to not switch it. I think it was Justin was just going to show real quick and then I was going to get back in front. It wasn’t Justin’s best show ever. Malachi was able to turn the corner and get that little 10-footer or whatever. We called a timeout, we knew they were going to run it again and we decided let’s just switch this and let Justin guard him. They ran it again, we switched it, he took kind of a quick shot and Justin was right there in front of him.

With 32 seconds left, SDSU got the switch it wanted, moving Justin Bean onto Flynn beyond the arc. With 28.9 seconds remaining, Flynn rose up from distance, but Bean was there to contest.

Smith: Sam is a very, very good defensive player. We wanted our best on their best offensive player. And so this time, we said nope, we’d already screwed it up once. Let’s just make sure we get a body on Flynn. They ran exactly what we thought they were going to run. We just told Justin, ‘They’re going to run it, they’re going to get the switch and you just have to challenge it. Get in your stance.’ Justin was on the all-defensive team in the Mountain West Conference. It’s not like he’s a bad defender. He has great size, and is a very good athlete. We just told him to sit back in his stance and guard like you’ve never guarded before. If he rises up and makes a contested 3, then he rises up and makes a contested 3. But let’s not give him something at the rim. The guy can shoot the 3, he’s got an unbelievable pull-up game and, obviously, he can get fouled. So the whole point was let’s try to make him one-dimensional, let’s try to make him take a pull-up 3. So was I surprised it when he shot it? No, because like we told our guys, we’re going to dig in and get a stop, there’s a 10-second differential and at a minimum as long as we get a rebound — the key was let’s make sure we’re boxing out — long shots equal long rebounds.

Flynn’s 3-pointer was a bit long and the shot bounced off the backside of the rim high into the air. Merrill was in position to snag the rebound with 26 seconds remaining.

Merrill: I got the rebound and Malachi almost snuck up behind me and poked the ball out. I didn’t even notice that he was there until Diogo (Brito) started screaming at me. I think it was more of me being in the right place, but we like to have our guards crash down, but you have to be careful to not crash down too hard, because you know the biggest cliche ever is long shot-long rebound. That’s exactly what it was. I happened to be in the right spot and went and got it.

With 22.2 seconds left, Merrill gave the ball to Brito, who pushed the ball up the floor to Abel Porter with 20.5 seconds left on the clock and the score still tied 56-56. Porter waited patiently for a few seconds to get Merrill the ball back. The handoff came with 17.9 seconds remaining. Just one second goes by before Merrill is waving off USU center Neemias Queta. Smith follows suit and starts signaling to his four other players to get down toward the baseline.

Smith: We practice late-game situations on a regular basis, so there was never a doubt. To be honest, I wouldn’t call it a dream, but I had more of a premonition that morning of the game, just getting ready for the game, I just had a strong inclination that it was going to come down to the very end of the game. You can never predict it. I just had a premonition. We’re not an iso team at all. When I first got hired, not even two years ago, over the summer we put in a lot of iso sets for Sam. I’m not an iso coach. That’s just not my deal. We’re No. 10 in assists this year, last year we were No. 5 in the country in assists, we really move the ball, share the ball as an offense. We put in a couple iso sets for Sam a couple years ago and Sam kind of looked at me, ‘Iso ball is not really my deal,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can tell.’

USU calls it 1-4 flat, a common phrase for isolating one player alone and the other four players near the baseline. The only other time they’d run something similar all year was at Colorado State on Feb. 12, when Merrill hit an eerily-similar 3-point shot in Fort Collins, Colo., to give USU a key road win.

Aggie radio play-by-play voice Scott Garrard: For the most part, they hadn’t done any of that 1-4 flat at all. It seemed like they were heading in that direction just based on throughout the tournament, they’d gone to it quite a bit and they’d had some success. And Sam had just been hitting everything, every big shot all tournament long. He’d been making every single meaningful shot. You’ll even hear Lance Beckert, our color analyst on the call, he said, ‘1-4 flat,’ because he’d seen it coming.

It wasn’t until the second half of Utah State’s first-round MWC tournament game against New Mexico in Las Vegas that Smith and his staff started implementing the 1-4 flat isolation set for Merrill.

Smith: We ran that at various times in the second half against New Mexico, certainly against Wyoming, and we had not done that at all against San Diego State up until that point. But there was really no doubt. It was a tie game. I don’t want to get too deep, but it just kind of felt like the moment. It’s like, you know what? Coaches can overthink things. Phil Jackson’s a phenomenal coach, but it’s not rocket science to get Michael Jordan the ball or Kobe Bryant the ball. I’m certainly not Phil Jackson and I’m not saying Sam is Michael Jordan, but listen, this guy, Sam will go down as one of the best players in Utah State basketball history. He’ll go down as one of the best players in Mountain West Conference basketball history. It just felt like the moment. San Diego State is so good defensively that we were going to make sure Sam had the ball and he was either going to make that play and win the game and we’re cutting down the nets or it’s going to go overtime and we have another five minutes to find a way to win.

Merrill: To be honest, I’m not even sure Coach even called for it. But Neemi came up kind of like he was trying to set a screen and I just waved him off. I just said, ‘Hey, let me do this.’ Coach ran with it. I’ve really improved in that (isolation) aspect over the past year. Just because I’ve always been a pass-first guy, I think that’s probably why I would say something like that. I’ve really improved in my isolation. I think the numbers would tell you that in the last year. Against New Mexico, with their style, I’m not trying to criticize them, but they just don’t really guard the ball all that well. They want chaos, so they’d rather almost let you go and try to poke the ball out or double team and all that stuff. I just realized early in that game that I could go by any of their guys. I told that to Coach. He said what do you want to run? I said, to be honest, let me go 1 on 1. There’s not one guy on that team that’s actually going to get into me and keep me in front of him. That’s when we really started doing it.

With 10.6 seconds remaining, Merrill turned and faced SDSU’s K.J. Feagin, the man Smith said this week that he voted for Feagin as the MWC Defensive Player of the Year. That’s when the bulb went off. Merrill knew then what his plan was. He wasn’t going to drive. He was going to pull up from deep. He has four inches on Feagin. For the next five seconds, Merrill went right to left through legs three times, then left to right through his legs once, then back right to left through his legs one last time.

Merrill: I think it’s something that every little kid dreams of growing up. Every time you’re playing 1 on 1, and I play 1 on 1 all the time with my buddies, and any time I work out with friends or teammates, we usually finish with 1 on 1 and that’s the kind of stuff you do. Any time this season that I would be late in the shot clock situation where I would have to go 1 on 1, that’s just what I would do. Left to right between the legs. Just rhythm into stuff, see if I can make a move. And then having that specific opportunity: game tied, championship on the line, and since we lost at New Mexico a week and a half ago now, I was hoping I’d get that opportunity.

Smith: Look, we didn’t put that in until not even halftime of the New Mexico game. I used to run it for a guy at Mayville State. We did it once on the fly against New Mexico and sent them down and then drew it up later in a timeout and said, ‘Listen, if we call for it and we give the hand signal and we do this, this means this, we need our 5-man, Neemi go here, Bean go here, our guards go over here and let’s see what Sam goes to make a play. Does that mean Sam is going to automatically shoot? No. A couple times it led to easy baskets for other people. But the point is, you get the ball in an elite guard’s hands and he goes to make the play. Honestly, whether it’s a shot for him or making that pass. It’s essentially the same thing that San Diego State did to us, they just set the ball screen to get the switch and create an iso.

Garrard: After the Colorado State game, he’d mentioned to me that he’d hit that shot a thousand times in practice. Where he dribbles outside the 3-point line, where he rises, fires and hits the shot. It’s something that he knew he could do with a high level of regularity. So when he’s hesitating outside that 3-point line with about five or six seconds left, I knew for sure he was going to rise for a 3. Normally, he’d been going kind of straight away. He worked a little bit more left than normal and a little bit had to do with Feagin and so Feagin forced him a little bit left. To see him rise up was not a surprise at all.

With five seconds remaining and Merrill that much closer to his destination, Smith is hunched over, his hands on his knees. With 4.5 seconds left, Merrill sets his feet. With 4.2 seconds remaining, his feet leave the floor and a tenth of a second later, he lets loose. Feagin connects with Merrill’s hand and upon Merrill coming back down he stumbles and falls backward to the floor. By that time, the shot was in. USU lead, 59-56.

Merrill: I think he got a little bit of both. He definitely hit my hand. You’ve seen pictures of him hitting my hand. I’m not sure if he landed in my space, but he definitely got some hand. That’s up to everyone else to decide if that’s a foul or not.

Smith: I know it’s cliche and I know it’s dull and I know it’s boring, but that dude, and this is just part of the thing, it just kind of felt like destiny. However you want to phrase it, it just felt like destiny. This young man, from the time he was four or five, was going to Aggie games and grew up wanting and his dream was to be a Utah State men’s basketball player. It was his dream. I don’t think you can understate that.

The broadcast simultaneously shows Merrill smacking his left hand onto his right forearm saying, ‘How is that not a foul?’ and at the same time, pointing at his teammates to get back into the huddle because 2.6 seconds remained on the clock and SDSU still had life.

Smith: Well, that’s Sam. Two things: when he gets fouled, he’s not afraid to voice it. If you noticed, he fell, landed on his derriere, but he pops right back up. He doesn’t wait for anyone. He pops right back up. He’s ready to get back on defense, but he also knows there’s a timeout and he’s gesturing how he got fouled and getting everybody back to the huddle. That’s who he is. He’s not prancing around, saying everyone look at me, he’s not beating his chest, he’s not doing the fingers to the head, he’s onto the next play. We have a saying in our program the “NBA.” Everyone thinks the NBA is the National Basketball Association. In our program, NBA is Next Best Action. And Sam personifies that. He’s immediately getting guys into the huddle, he’s immediately onto the next. You can see in the huddle and he’s looking at us, puts his head in the towel and it would be really interesting what he’s thinking there. In my gut, he’s thinking, ‘We have to get a stop right here. We have to get a stop.’ Then, obviously, you know they called a timeout, the official asked me if we’re going to foul, I tell him I haven’t decided yet because we were going to call a timeout because I wanted to see their alignment. We call timeout, see their alignment and we put our guys in certain places and they call timeout to change their play and when they changed their play, we felt like they were going to have to make a half-courter, which they obviously did.

Merrill: I just feel like I’ve been in a lot of situations where … I’m not a big celebratory guy. So I hate when guys celebrate early and then something happens. For me, it was all like, we need to get just one stop and then celebrate as much as we want. I wish there would’ve been less time, so I could have celebrated, but I was just like thinking, ‘Thank goodness Jalen Moore’s not on the floor.’

Merrill had a front-row seat for a half-court heave from the right side of the floor seven years ago. His eventually USU teammate, former forward Jalen Moore, hit a half-court buzzer-beater in the Utah Class 4A semifinals in 2013. Merrill was guarding Moore.

Merrill: I was in the exact same spot Saturday, too, but only like five feet off of (Flynn). I had some nightmares as that ball went up.

Smith: Flynn obviously caught that running out to his right and when he caught that it was right in my line of sight to the rim and when that left his hand, I was like, ‘Oh boy.’

Flynn’s half-court heave with 1.3 seconds wasn’t contested and it rattled in and out. USU won three games in three days, securing a second-straight NCAA Tournament bid. The Aggies went crazy. Merrill, however, wasn’t in the frenzy. The senior was crouched down, alone, slapping the floor.

Merrill: To be honest, it was just a moment of relief and a moment of, not self-appreciation, but I was just so, so happy that we did it. Because we weren’t sure if we were going to make the tournament if we lost. After that New Mexico game, I told myself that I was going to do anything that I could and you hear stories of guys like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to win three games in three days.’ We were all saying that and I was hoping to make sure we do this, but I wasn’t sure that I actually believed it all week. And so when that shot finally didn’t go in, it was like, wow, we actually did this. We beat a Top 10 team and we found a way to leave no doubt. That’s why I was so relieved and so happy.

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by Elkaggie » March 15th, 2020, 5:42 pm

Wow. Sam is amazing.. in every way. And he’s all class too.

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by Bank Shot » March 19th, 2020, 8:57 am

In case anyone is interested The Athletic is offering a one day offer of 1/2 price for one year subscription. Of course, if you fail to cancel at the end of year your sub will go back to regular price of $60/yr.

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Re: If you have an Athletic subscription: The story behind the greatest shot in Utah State basketball history

Post by 2004AG » March 19th, 2020, 8:58 am

Bank Shot wrote:In case anyone is interested The Athletic is offering a one day offer of 1/2 price for one year subscription. Of course, if you fail to cancel at the end of year your sub will go back to regular price of $60/yr.
I recently purchased a subscription. Worth every penny.

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