During his first practice at Utah State last fall, freshman center Neemias Queta told a teammate who was rotating on defense to help stop dribble penetration not to bother because he could handle anyone who got into the paint.
Aggies coach Craig Smith heard Queta but wasn’t sure what to think.
He does now. Queta, whom Smith’s staff found in Portugal just before the school year started, helped anchor a defensive masterpiece Saturday as Utah State won the Mountain West Tournament championship with a 64-57 victory over San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Queta, the league’s top freshman and defensive player of the year, had 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots and made the Aztecs think about several others. The Aztecs (21-13) shot 33 percent for the game and 27 percent in the second half.
“He’s a high-level big man,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “He protects the rim so you can make mistakes on the perimeter. You can extend your defense and pressure knowing he’s protecting the rim. He’s an elite big man. So they’re very fortunate to have him.”
It was exactly what Smith had hoped for since that first practice.
“He’s like a greyhound going from rim to rim,” he said. “He just moves so well, defending screen and roll. (When he made that comment at the first practice), I was like, ‘Whoa, I like that swagger.’ And he does have the paint. So he was a prophet, and he knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Even the most optimistic fan would have had a difficult time predicting the success of the Aggies. Smith took over in March when Tim Duryea was fired and inherited some good players, most notably junior Sam Merrill. But it was signing the 6-foot-11-inch Queta after sending an assistant coach to Portugal in March that helped return the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
They will take a 28-6 record into the NCAA Tournament, after sharing the regular-season title with UNR.
“Before he got here, I wasn’t fully sold because there were a lot of guys — not as long as him but guys in our league around 6 feet 11, athletic, pretty long,” said Merrill, who had 24 points and six rebounds to win tournament MVP honors. “But after the first couple of practices, you could tell this dude has an absolute motor, and he’s (so competitive). It makes life so much easier playing with him. And we’re grateful that the coaches were able to make that late find with him.”
Queta, who was particularly effective on both ends during a decisive 13-0 run to start the second half, is just as pleased with his decision.
“Before I came here, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said Queta, who is already sixth among the school’s career blocked shots leaders. “But as soon as I practiced, I knew we were going to be this good. And we just kept on working the whole year, and it felt awesome just to get win after win after win. And that doesn’t happen like that. You have to work for it.”
Joining Merrill on the all-tournament team were Queta, San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels and Devin Watson, and New Mexico’s Vance Jackson.