LOGAN, Utah (ABC4 Sports) – The highly-touted Utah State basketball team, ranked 17th in the nation, survived a potential disaster season-opener at home.
Sam Merrill helped rescue the Aggies by scoring 28 points, making 17 of 18 free throw attempts, as Utah State eventually held off Montana State, 81-73.
Alphonso Anderson and Justin Bean each added 13 points for the Aggies. Utah State overcame 37.7% shooting from the field to hold off the Bobcats by getting to the line. The Aggies went 35 of 45 from the free-throw line.
Utah State was playing without star center Neemias Queta, who was out with a knee injury.
“I knew this was going to be a tough game,” said Utah State head coach Craig Smith. “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. Inexperienced. And when you’re preparing, and we’re pretty detailed in our prep, when you have 10 new players from all over the place and you don’t know what they’re going to run, they had us off-balanced all night, quite frankly. We tightened up, certainly down the stretch.”
Harald Frey led Montana State with 34 points on 10-of-20 shooting. The Bobcats had 15 turnovers, leading to 14 points for Utah State.
Anderson’s steal and layup helped spark a decisive 10-0 run that gave Utah State a 74-66 lead with 1:48 remaining.
In a game that featured nine ties and 11 lead changes, Utah State moved in front for good following a pair of free throws by junior forward Alphonso Anderson that broke a 66-all tie with 3:47 to go.
Montana State cut it to three on a three-point play from Finn Fleute. Brock Miller answered with a corner 3 with 30 seconds left.
Diogo Brito buried a corner 3 to spark a 12-5 run that helped Utah State carve out a 22-15 lead. The Aggies missed 10 of their first 14 shots before the basket but hit 4 of 5 during the run.
Utah State could not find any consistency on offense before halftime. The Aggies missed their final eight shots of the first half and went almost seven minutes without a basket.
It opened the door for Montana State to rally.
Frey pulled the Bobcats within one when he converted a three-point play to cut Utah State’s lead to 35-34 with 40.2 seconds remaining in the half. The senior guard kept making big plays well into the second half. He made three straight 3-pointers and then followed with a three-point play to help Montana State pull within a point again at 49-48.
The Bobcats finally took a 55-54 lead on Michael Paulo’s layup with 10:09 left.
Merrill’s 17 free throws tied a school record set back in 1970.
“I thought it was a really good test for us, lots of credit to Montana State,” Merrill said. “You can tell, similar to how we were last year, there’s a difference with the way they play. They 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. 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.”
Utah State next hosts Weber State Friday night at 7:00 p.m.