Aggie basketball team passes first test

Perhaps starting the season as a nationally ranked team carried a little weight.

The No. 17 Aggie men’s basketball team opened the 2019-20 campaign Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum with a scare. Utah State entered the opener against Montana State as more than 21-point favorites.

The Aggies rallied late to avoid being upset by the Bobcats. USU used a 10-0 run in the closing minutes of the contest and made free throws when they really counted for a 81-73 victory.

“We’ve earned this position and need to embrace it,” USU head coach Craig Smith said of being nationally ranked. “We need to be ready to go every day. We are going to get people’s best shots. ... At the end of the day we are 1-0 and need to keep chopping wood and keep fighting. I think this game is going to help us.”

Senior Sam Merrill made 17 of 18 from the foul line and finished with a team-high 28 points. The Aggie guard also had five rebounds and three assists. The 17 free throws tied a school record for the most by an individual.

“One of the best ways to stop a run (by the opponent) is to get to the free throw line and slow things down and get them out of their rhythm,” Merrill said. “... We got pretty aggressive and shot 45 free throws which is a good number.”

The Aggies (1-1) struggled shooting the ball, making 37.7 percent from the field. From 3-point range — where they got some open looks — they made 6 of 18 (33.3 percent). However, USU did make 77.8 percent of its free throws (35 of 45) and also won the rebound battle, 41-36. The Aggies also ended up having fewer turnovers, 15 to 9.

“We tightened up, certainly down the stretch,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a great start. We missed some chip shots, just literally point-blank baskets. We played not necessarily selfishly, but we wanted it easy in the first half. We just weren’t cutting hard, weren’t curling screens, didn’t work hard to get open on offense. We defended pretty well the first half.

“And then, obviously, (Harald) Frey is a heck of player and, obviously, went ballistic. I don’t know how many threes he hit from two or three feet past NBA-range. Those are deep, deep threes. Once you start getting going like that, it’s hard to stop a guy. We were throwing the kitchen sink at him, to not much success. At the end of the day, we get down three late and have seven straight stops to get us in the lead.”

Frey finished with a game-best 34 points, but did miss his final three shots as USU was able to secure the victory.

Aggie forward Alphonso Anderson came up big when needed. He scored 10 of his 13 points over the last seven minutes of the game. The junior college transfer made all eight of his free throws during that span and scored six points during the decisive 10-0 run.

“I think Phonso is going to be a good player and we need figure out how we can utilize him the best,” Smith said. “I thought he was huge for us down the stretch. He played on attack and did some things for us defensively, particularly getting some huge rebounds.”

Anderson also grabbed six rebounds and had a steal in 18 minutes of action Tuesday night.

“It was a fun one, the first real one in the Spectrum, the energy was going,” Anderson said. “As you could probably see on my first shot, my energy was really high, but it slowed down a little bit and they competed really well. Our team came together at the end and pulled it out.”

The Aggies turned up the aggressiveness in the second half. Anderson had a big part in that. The 6-foot-6 forward played the five for a while when USU went small.

“I was just waiting for coach to call my number; I was ready for the opportunity whatever the position,” Anderson said. “I feel I can guard all five positions.”

Even the lights going out didn’t bother Anderson, who was stepping to the line when it went dark.

“Oh man that one messed me up a little bit,” Anderson said with a laugh. “I didn’t know if they would have counted it if I shot it. I ended up taking a step back and regathering myself.”

And then sinking two free throws.

“He is a big-time player, and we need those type of players on this team,” Merrill said of Anderson.

Joining Merrill and Anderson in double-figure scoring was Justin Bean with 13 points and Abel Porter with 10. Bean had his second career double-double with a game-best 10 rebounds. Porter had four assists.

“I know everyone has high expectations, but we are going to have to grow because we have new faces and Neemie (Queta) is out,” Merrill said. “... Every player has something to work on. It was a pretty good start. ... This was a good reminder to us that every night teams are going to bring it. I think we have the right guys in place. We just need to know we can’t take any nights off.”

TIP-INS

The Aggie schedule is finally complete as Saint Katherine was recently added for the opening on Dec. 10. The NAIA school from southern California finalizes the 2019-20 schedule for USU. ... 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 last 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.

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.

AGGIE DUNK COUNT

The Aggies did not record a dunk over the first 20 minutes Tuesday night. 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.

UP NEXT

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.

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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