Trio of freshmen shine as Aggies roll in exhibition

Utah State University plays Evergreen State College in the first basketball game of the season on Nov. 1, 2018 in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah. Utah State defeated Evergreen State 96-45. (Megan Nielsen)

It doesn’t count for anything, and the outcome was never in doubt.

Nevertheless, Utah State’s men’s basketball season is underway, at least unofficially.

The Aggies thumped Evergreen State College 96-45 at home Thursday night in an exhibition matchup. It wasn’t much more than a glorified scrimmage against their NAIA opponent, but Utah State received some key contributions from a trio of true freshmen.

“There’s certain guys that we know what we’re going to get out of them every night,” first-year USU head coach Craig Smith said. “That’ll be the key as we grow as a team: what is our mantra going to be and what is our team identity going to be, and what are we going to get out of each individual on a consistent basis?”

Three different freshmen led the Aggies in scoring. Point guard Tauriawn Knight led the way with a game-high 16 points in 18 minutes. 6-foot-11-inch center Neemias Queta put up an impressive stat line; the Portugal native scored 15 points, to go along with eight rebounds and four blocks. Fellow big man Ben Fakira, an Australian transplant, notched a double-double with 14 points, 10 boards, two blocks and two steals.

“We’re really young,” Smith said. “I thought overall our freshmen played very well, and they’re going to have to play well if we’re going to be as good of a team as we need to be.”

Utah State wasted no time in taking a commanding lead. The Aggies went up 14-2 in the first four-and-a-half minutes on a layup by Queta. It wasn’t really a fair matchup between Queta and Fakira and their opponents – Evergreen State had no answer for Queta’s 7-foot-5-inch wingspan or Fakira’s solid 250-pound frame. To their credit, though, the duo didn’t rely on simple brute strength to dominate. Queta showed off some quick footwork and keen awareness, and Fakira had a few finesse finishes around the rim. Both freshmen will be called on this season for a Utah State team that is lacking in depth in the paint.

“I’m really confident in our guys,” Fakira said. “We’ve been working hard this summer. We’re just coming together right now. I’m really ready to play. It’s going to be a good time.”

Knight, a true freshman and former prep star from Oklahoma, showed his ability to heat up quickly. He came off the bench and erupted for the Aggies. In the final 2:38 of the first half, Knight scored 10 points on five straight layups to send USU into the locker room with a 51-19 lead.

“I just always really want to be aggressive,” Knight said. “I feel like it was time to be aggressive.”

Sam Merrill, USU’s leading scorer in 2017-18, collected 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Merrill went 2 of 4 from three-point range, making him the only Aggie to knock down multiple shots from behind the arc. Long range shooting was not USU’s forte Thursday night – they went 3 of 18 as a team. It didn’t need to be, though. The Aggies amassed a whopping 76 points in the paint, including 20 points on second chance opportunities.

All-in-all, every active player on Utah State’s roster saw at least 11 minutes of playing time. 11 of those 12 players scored, and nobody played more than 20 minutes in the tune-up situation. Utah State held the Geoducks to a dismal 25.8% from the floor. Elijah Fuller and Hanley Shum each scored eight points for Evergreen State. It was a rough night for the undersized Geoducks, who went 5-24 in 2017-18.

The Aggies will officially kick of their season Tuesday night. USU will take to the road, where they will face Montana State as they open a stretch of six games in 16 days to start their season.

“Now it’s on for real in five days,” Smith said. “Overall, I really liked what we saw tonight.”

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