Montana State men drop season opener to Utah State

(Editor’s note: Montana State University media release)

BOZEMAN – Utah State guard Sam Merrill scored 37 points, ninth-most by a visitor in the history of Worthington Arena, to lead Utah State to a 101-71 win over Montana State in both teams’ season openers on Tuesday. The Aggies shot 49% from the floor and were 23-of-26 from the free throw line.

But it was something else entirely that caught Bobcat coach Brian Fish’s eye. “At the end of the day, if you take everything else, we can survive that,” he said. “It was their physicality and rebounding that won the game.”

Utah State out-rebounded the Cats 51-to-25. The Aggies grabbed 16 of their own missed shots, and turned them into 17 points. Three different USU players snagged at least six boards. “We flat out didn’t play hard enough, didn’t play well enough, and we got beat by 26 on the boards,” said MSU guard Harald Frey, echoing his coach’s thoughts. “That’s unacceptable regardless of what team you are. That has nothing to do with skill. That has to do with mentality.”

It took USU a while to get clicking, but once it did there was no slowing the Aggies down. Their first points came 2:40 into the game, a pair of free throws by Neemias Queta. Utah State scored eight points in the game’s first five minutes, with six coming from the line. Montana State’s nine points in the first seven minutes all came on three-pointers, and at that point Utah State had grabbed a 13-9 advantage that it would never surrender.

“They got to the line early in the game, and I thought we survived that,” Fish said. “I think we led in free throws (shot) by the end of the half.” Montana State shot 21 free throws in the first half to Utah State’s 17, and finished with 33 charity tosses to USU’s 26. Still, the Aggies shot 88.5% from the line and scored two points more than the Bobcats there.

Utah State slowly built its margin through the first half, jumping ahead by 10 for the first time at the 7:40 mark, 29-19. MSU trimmed the margin to six a couple of times, but USU closed the half by scoring on three straight possessions to grab a 50-34 advantage.

Two of those buckets came from Merrill, and he opened scoring in the second half with another basket. “He’s a really good player,” Fish said of the brilliant 6-5 junior who made seven shots inside the three-point circle, five more outside the arc, and drained all eight of his free throws. For good measure he grabbed four boards, dished out three assists, blocked a shot, and had two steals. Dwayne Brown Jr. chipped in 15 points for the Aggies.

But still, Fish said his team could have found its way through all that. “We had a lot of young guys out there that never played Division I, and we tried to change that game through shooting the basketball,” he said. “Our number one point in the scouting report today was block out and rebound. We always figure that a rebound is worth one point, and in a 30-point loss when you get beat by 26 on the boards it almost holds up. That physicality really bothered us. They kicked us on the boards.”

Things get no easier for the Bobcats, as MSU faces Indiana on Friday at 6 pm MT in Bloomington. The Cats return home for a Sunday night contest against Presentation at 7 pm in Worthington Arena.

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