COLUMBUS, OHIO – Utah State simulated in practice all week the zone defense that it expected to see from Washington in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Seeing it in person Friday was something totally different.
“You can’t replicate the length that they have and the athleticism that they have,” Utah State star guard Sam Merrill said.
The No. 9 seed Huskies suffocated Merrill and Utah State’s offense with a hard-nosed defensive performance in a 78-61 win at Nationwide Arena.
Washington forced 21 turnovers and held Merrill to only 10 points — his second-lowest output of the season.
“Defense is how we win games,” senior forward Matisse Thybulle, a finalist for national defensive player of the year.
Utah State ranked in the Top 20 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio this season at plus 1.37. On Friday, the Aggies had 21 turnovers to only 13 assists.
“They really disrupted us,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “We were really tentative in the first half. They had a lot to do with that.”
Five different Utah State players had at least three turnovers, led by Merrill’s six. Merrill was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Year after averaging 21.2 points.
Washington made him the focus of its defensive game plan, and he looked out of sorts all game. Merrill didn’t make his first shot until the second half and finished 2-of-9 from the field.
“Any scorer is going to get frustrated if they can get a clean look,” said Thybulle, who had five steals. “When you’ve got five guys guarding you, it’s going to be pretty hard.”
Utah State trailed by 12 at halftime but cut the deficit to 54-53 halfway through the second half. But Washington clamped down defensively to retake a double-digit lead.