By PAUL GOTHAM
The University of Washington’s 12-point halftime lead shrunk to one.
Sam Merrill capped a 7-0 Utah State spurt with a 3-pointer, and the eighth-seeded Aggies trailed Washington 54-53 with 9:54 remaining in Midwest Region first-round action of the NCAA Tournament.
Nahziah Carter (Bishop Kearney) provided the response. The sophomore drilled back-to-back 3-pointers as the No. 9-seed Huskies went on to advance with a 78-61 in first round action from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s been a different guy every night,” Washington head coach Mike Hopkins said. “Today Naz Carter hit two big 3s when the game was tight. He’s prepared. He works.”
Carter took a Jaylen Nowell pass and gave Washington to a 60-53 lead. The Huskies did not allow Utah State within six points over the remaining 8:47 of the game.
“They do a great job of packing the paint,” Hopkins said of Utah State. “They’re one of the best two-point-field-goal percentage defensive teams in the country. They go in the boxes and elbows.
“We knew they would double team. We knew we would get open shots if we were patient and we moved the ball.”
Carter scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. His jumper at the 6:09 mark pushed the UW advantage to double-digits at 65-55.
“Naz Carter is probably one of the hardest workers on our team and to see him have those moments was pretty special,” Hopkins added. “That was a big part of the game, the two 3s, and he stepped in, wide-open shots, and that’s when we’re at our best. Those are the shots we make when we make 3s. t was the unselfish passing and guys looking for each other.”
Carter finished 4-of-8 from the floor for the night. He handed out four assists as Washington advanced to play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday.
Brock Miller led Utah State with 13 points. Washington held Merrill, averaging more than 21 points per game, to 10 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“Our defense was really, really good especially on Sam Merrill,” Hopkins noted. “He’s one of the best players in the country. We had to make sure we limited him. And I think he was scoreless in the first half, which was a big part of our halftime lead.
“When we’re playing defense, high level, sometimes our defense is our best offense, and we took every swing that they got and we stayed poised and we stayed together and we came out with a win. Very proud of these guys.”
A 2:40 PM tipoff is scheduled Sunday for the Washington – North Carolina game. CBS will televise the game.