Behind a monstrous performance from their bench, Utah State men’s basketball opened the home portion of their 2018-19 schedule with a decisive 100-73 win over Hartford in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum Friday evening. The Aggies fell behind 9-0 in the first two minutes but recovered quickly on the way to their second-consecutive win. It was the 25th straight season in which Utah State has won its home-opener.
“We are really, really early, but from the get-go, our guys have bought in and worked incredibly hard,” Utah State first-year head coach Craig Smith said. “We’ve got to be more sound with some things, but our guys work hard and they play unselfish and I think it’s an exciting brand of basketball. Hopefully we can keep winning with it.”
The Aggies reached triple digits again after hanging 101 on Montana State on Tuesday. Friday night marked the first time that USU has scored 100 points or more in back-to-back wins since the 1979-80 season.
After giving up back-to-back-to-back three pointers to the Hawks, the boys in white-and-blue buckled down. Utah State tightened things up defensively to go on a 34-10 run and they never looked back. The Aggies contested Hartford’s three point attempts with more ferocity, and it paid off on the scoreboard.
“Early on we were a little soft on the three-point line,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “They are a really good shooting team. They’re going to score a lot of points this year. … After that 9-0 start we understood that we needed to get up into them a little more and pressure them.”
Dwayne Brown Jr. came off of the bench to spur the Aggies offensively as they pulled away in the first half. The senior scored 10 points during the run and tied his career-high with 24 total points. It was a very clean night shooting the ball for Brown; he went 9 of 12 from the field and scored his 24th point with 16:00 left in the game.
“Just like Sam (Merrill) the other night had 37 (points) on 18 shots, Dwayne (Brown Jr.) gets 24 (points) on 12 shots,” Smith said. “That’s just incredible efficiency.”
Brown’s scoring opportunities were due in large part to Hartford’s decision to commit heavily to defending Sam Merrill. The junior scored a career-high 37 points in the season opener against Montana State, and he was followed up and down the court by a Hawk at all times. Brown took advantage of this strategy and forced the issue, placing the ball on the floor and getting into the lane time after time.
“I just go at people,” Brown said. “It’s kind of a hunger thing for me when I play basketball. I just want to go at everybody who I’m playing against. Not in a crazy or disrespectful way, but just being competitive.”
Brown had plenty of help on the offensive end. Six different Aggies scored at least nine points, and four reached double figures. Freshman point guard Tauriawn Knight came off of the bench to score 14, and senior big man Quin Taylor added 12. Merrill had a smooth 14 points, marking the seventh consecutive time that he’s reached double figures in scoring, dating back to last season.
“All of the guys that come off of the bench in these first two games have done a great job of bringing energy and playing hard,” Merrill said. “Dwayne (Brown Jr.) obviously had a ton of mismatches tonight.”
Neemias Queta led the way with nine rebounds for the Aggies, and Merrill had a team-high four assists. All 12 Aggies on the roster scored. Nine different USU players saw at least 16 minutes of playing time.
As a whole, the Aggies outscored Hartford 59-13 off the bench and 64-24 in the paint. Utah State also took it to the Hawks on the boards, cleaning the glass to the tune of 48 rebounds.
Things got a bit sloppy in the second half – both teams combined for 24 fouls and 16 turnovers in the last 20 minutes of play.
The 8,500 Utah State fans in attendance were loud and excited for the season to get underway. USU’s student section wore blue t-shirts featuring Smith’s silhouette, and they got the chance to break out their first “up by 30” chant of the year.