Sigh of relief: Aggie basketball starts season with 81-73 win over Montana State

LOGAN – Take a deep breath. Basketball is back. And the pressure is, too.

Utah State survived a scorching shooting night from Montana State to start to the 2019-20 campaign with a 81-73 victory on Tuesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Senior guard Sam Merrill led the Aggies with 28 points.

“I thought it was a really good test for us. A lot of credit to Montana State. You can tell, similar to how we were last year, there’s a difference to how they play,” Merrill said. “Obviously, we didn’t play as well as we would’ve liked, but that’s the beauty of basketball is you can find ways to win games even when you’re not playing well, so we’re happy that we got the win.”

The Aggies struggled to find a consistent rhythm on offense in the first 20 minutes, shooting only 34.5 percent from the field in the first half, and only 36.4 percent from 3-point territory. With the offense sputtering, Utah State’s defense showcased its potential in the first half, holding Montana State to 6-21 from inside the arc. The Bobcats remained in the game on the perimeter by going 5-10 from 3-point range. USU maintained an advantage courtesy of the free throw line, shooting 21 FTs in the first half and 45 for the game.

“That’s one of the best ways to stop a run is to get to the free throw line, stop everything, slow them down and get them out of their rhythm,” Merrill said. “We got pretty aggressive… The way they were playing defense with their pressure, we thought we had opportunities to get to the rim and draw fouls and that’s what we did.”

The second stanza brought even more frightening shooting from the Bobcats. Senior Harald Frey continued to toy with the Aggie defense, shooting 4-6 from behind the arc en route to 21 second-half points, part of his game-high 34 on the night. The Bobcats stuck around on the back of Frey’s efforts, earning a 66-66 tie with 4:21 remaining in the second half.

“Obviously (Harald) Frey, he is a heck of a player and he went ballistic,” head coach Craig Smith said. “I don’t know many threes he hit from two and three feet past the NBA range. Those are deep, deep threes and once you get going like that, it’s hard to stop a guy. We were throwing the kitchen sink at him to not much success.”

In their first tense moment of the season, USU responded admirably. An 8-0 run featuring four free throws from JC transfer Alphonso Anderson, a dunk from junior Abel Porter, and a layup from sophomore Justin Bean gave the Aggies breathing room in the final minutes. The Bobcats again put on the pressure after freshman Finn Fleute converted an and-one opportunity in the final minute to trim USU’s lead to 74-71.

Needing a bucket, Porter drove to collapse the defense before kicking out to sophomore Brock Miller wide open in the corner for a three that extended the lead to 77-71. The Aggie defense then forced a contested layup from Montana State as Merrill skied for the rebound, allowing Merrill and company iced the game away at the FT line.

“When Brock (Miller) hits that shot, that’s a big-time shot,” Merrill said. “I think he had hit only one shot all game. He was 1-5 at the time and hits a big-time three. At this level, I don’t think there’s ever any room to really exhale but at that point, we felt like we were in pretty good shape.”

Merrill added five rebounds and three assists to his scoring totals, also tying a school record by attempting 18 FTs in the game, converting 17 of them.Bean finished with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds on the night. Porter also reached double figures with 10 points and four assists. Anderson, in his first regulation game for the Aggies, ended with 13 points and six rebounds while going 8-8 from the FT line.

“It was a fun one. First real one in the Spectrum,” Anderson said. “The energy was going, as you could probably see on my first shot, my energy was really high… After my first few minutes, the game just really slowed down for me. It’s basketball at the end of the day… I’ve been playing basketball my whole life, so the moment was there and I just knocked them down.”

Utah State was also playing without its star sophomore center Neemias Queta, who is still recovering from a knee injury. His expected date of return is still unknown according to coach Smith.

“We’ve just gotta be very, very assignment sound because (Queta) can cover up a lot of mistakes,” Merrill said. “I think Kuba (Karwowski) can do that as well with his size and length. But we’ve got to be much better guarding the ball, can’t have any slip-ups in our assignments and our rotations and stuff like that. It’s a process. I thought we did some good things tonight and some things that weren’t so good. As the season goes on, as we continue to play more games, hopefully that will improve.”

The game showcased the new reality for Utah State as the 17th-ranked team in the preseason AP poll. Following last season’s surprise run after coming ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll, the Aggies are burdened with high expectations and knockout attempts from every opponent on the schedule.

“We’ve earned this position and you just have to embrace it and be ready to go everyday. We’re always going to get peoples’ best shots,” coach Smith said. “At the end of the day, we’re 1-0 and we’ve got to just keep chopping wood and just keep fighting. As agonizing and as frustrating as this game was at times, at the end of the day I think this is going to really help us because you found a way to win a close game when the chips were down.”

Utah State returns to the Spectrum on Friday to take on in-state rival Weber State. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 7 pm MST.

The Aggies are ready for the pressure it will bring.

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