It was nowhere near the blowout the opener was a year ago, but when the game was on the line, the Aggies finished.
No. 17 Utah State used a 10-0 run down the stretch to seize the lead for good and beat upset-minded Montana State late Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, 81-73, in front of 7,331 fans. It was the 2019-20 season opener for both schools.
“Montana State played a fantastic game,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. "They have a good team, played super hard, played really unselfish. They defended well and ran good actions. I knew this was going to be a tough game. I've been on edge a little bit here the last 10 days or so because it's difficult. They kind of flipped the script from where we were last year, quite frankly. A new coach. A whole bunch of new players.”
There were nine lead changes and the score was tied 11 times in the game.
“I thought it was a really good test for us, lots of credit to Montana State,” said Aggie guard Sam Merrill, who played in his 100th career game at USU and finished with a team-best 28 points. “... They (Bobcats) played really hard, they played really hard defensively, and they moved the ball. Obviously Harald (Frey) got it going and we struggled to stop him a little bit, and credit to him, he’s a really, really good player.”
Frey scored a game-high 34 points on 10 of 20 shooting from the field, including hitting 6 of 10 from long range. However, he did not score over the final five minutes of the contest.
Trailing 66-64 with less than five minutes to play, the Aggies (1-0) came to life as the crowd got loud. Alphonso Anderson came up with a steal and went coast-to-coast to spark a 10-0 run. Anderson capped the surge with two free throws, as USU took a 74-66 lead with 1:48 left in the game. The Aggies also got seven defensive stops during that run.
“He got lots of tough rebounds and was tough defensively at the end for us and made all of his free throws,” Merrill said of Anderson, who finished with 13 points. “He is a big-time player. … Credit to him because he really basically saved us there at the end.”
But it took a few more shots as Montana State (0-1) scored five unanswered points to get within a possession with less than a minute to play.
Brock Miller hit his second 3-pointer of the game off a pass from Abel Porter with 29 ticks left that basically iced the game. Merrill sank four straight free throws in the final seconds.
“Brock hit a big-time shot,” Merrill said. “... This was a good test for us. Obviously we didn’t play as well as we would have liked, but that’s the beauty of basketball. You can find ways to win games, even when you’re not playing well. We’re happy that we got the win.”
Wearing a mask because of a broken nose didn’t seem to bother Justin Bean. The sophomore finished with his second career double-double as he scored 13 points and grabbed a game-best 10 rebounds. Porter joined Merrill, Anderson and Bean in double-figure scoring with 10 points and also had four assists.
“The team came together when we needed and came out with the win,” Anderson said. “... At the end of the day, it’s basketball. The game slowed down after I had been in there for a few minutes. I’ve been playing basketball my whole life.”
Merrill tied the school record with 17 made free throws. He shares the record now with Tim Tollestrup (1970) and Bart Johnson (1954).
Frey was joined in double figures by Jubrile Belo (12) and Michael Paulo (10).
“Against Utah State, you have to make shots,” Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “You have to make some tough shots, too. They really guard the basketball and shrink the floor at a high level, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“... We played in a hostile environment against one of the best teams in the country, one of the best-coached teams in the country. Their pace and how hard they cut, that’s an elite level. Sam Merrill’s one of the best guards in the country. We can take away our young team coming into this environment and competing. We’ll play in some environments like this again, but now I think our guys have a little more belief.”
The Aggies made their last 19 free throws of the game and got stops when they needed.
After the Bobcats began the game with a 3-pointer from Paulo, the Aggies responded with a trey of their own. Miller scored the first points of the 2019-20 season, taking a pass from Merrill and draining a trey.
There were three lead changes and the score was knotted three times before USU took the lead for good. Diogo Brito drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Sean Bairstow to spark a 10-2 run. Bairstow sank two free throws, and Porter made two buckets to give the Aggies a 20-13 lead midway through the opening half.
Anderson gave the hosts their largest lead of the first half, 27-18, drilling a 3-pointer off a pass from Porter.
The Bobcats did not roll over and clawed back to within 33-31 with two minutes before the break. The Aggies took a 37-34 lead into halftime as Kuba Karwowski blocked three Montana State shots in the closing seconds.
Frey hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half — the second from way out there — to tie the game up at 42-42 with 16:51 to play.
Merrill got the Aggies going with a trey of his own and then a pair of free throws, but the game would be back and forth until the final minutes.
"We'll take it,” Smith said. “It wasn't pretty. Our home court was really, really good. To see The HURD in full effect on game one like that was sure exciting. That makes a difference."
Aggie sophomore center Neemias Queta dressed and warmed up with the team, but sat at the end of the bench and cheered on his teammates as he continues to rehab an injured knee. … Tuesday marked the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Spectrum. … USU improved to 57-18 all-time as an AP ranked team. … The Aggies also improved to 85-30 in season openers and have won 24 of their 26. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 78th time in his career and is now tied with Nate Harris for the eighth most double-digit scoring games in school history. It is also the 24th straight game the senior guard has scored in double figures, dating back to last season. … Freshman center Kuba Karwowski blocked four Bobcat shots. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Bobcats, 79-40, which is the third-most played opponent for USU..
WOODEN AWARD WATCH LIST
Merrill and Queta were named to the watch list of the John R. Wooden Award on Tuesday. Chosen by a preseason poll of national college basketball experts, the list is comprised of 50 student-athletes who are the early front-runners for the most prestigious honors in college basketball, the Wooden Award All-American Team and Most Outstanding Player Award.
The National Ballot will include 15 top players who have proven to their universities that they meet or exceed the qualifications of the Wooden Award. Nearly 1,000 voters will rank in order 10 of those 15 players when voting opens prior to the NCAA Tournament and will allow voters to take into consideration performance during early round games. The Wooden Award All-American Team will be announced the week of the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner of the 2020 John R. Wooden Award will be presented by Wendy’s during the ESPN College Basketball Awards on April 10, 2020.
USU is one of just nine schools in the nation with multiple student-athletes on the initial list, joining Florida, Davidson, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Memphis and Washington.
A number of players are deserving, but it goes to forward Alphonso Anderson. In his first game as an Aggie, the junior came up big down the stretch with critical points, including making 8 of 8 from the foul line. Anderson finished with 13 points on 2 of 4 shooting from the field, grabbed six rebounds and had a steal in 18 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
The Aggies did not record a dunk over the first 20 minutes. They finished with just one, and it came late in the contest. Bean slammed down a nice pass from Merrill, who penetrated and dished. The dunk came during the game-turning run.
The Aggies remain at home for the next four games to start the season. They will host in-state rival Weber State (0-0) on Friday at 7 p.m. It will be the season opener for the Wildcats.