BOZEMAN — Sam Merrill swished home his ninth field goal just four minutes into the second half to push Utah State’s lead to 20.
On the other end, Tyler Hall landed on a defender on a jump shot, appearing to re-tweak the ankle the star senior sprained against Montana State’s lone exhibition game.
That tweak seemed to encompass the struggles that plagued MSU in its season opener all night on Tuesday night in Bozeman.
Merrill already had 25 points when he hit his ninth shot on a night the Utah State junior poured in a career-high 37 points, using his velvety touch to pace an Aggies team that settled in early and never let up in a 101-71 victory at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse.
“Definitely not how we wanted to come out,” MSU junior combo guard Harald Frey said. “We definitely knew it was going to be tough. Utah State is a good team, played them last year, have some good veterans and we knew we were up for a task. We flat out didn’t play hard enough or well enough and we got beat by 26 on the boards, which is unacceptable no matter who you are playing. That has nothing to do with skill. That’s a mentality and that’s what we have to change.”
Montana State lost the battle in nearly every statistical measure, particularly getting doubled up on the glass.
“First of all, we had a lot of young guys out there who had never played Division I and we tried to change that game through shooting the basketball,” MSU fifth-year head coach Brian Fish said. “Our No. 1 point on our scouting report today was block out and rebound. We always figure rebounding is worth one point. A 30 point loss, get beat 26 on the boards (51-25), that holds up. That physicality really bothered us. They kicked us on the boards. I thought everything else we could’ve survived.
“We screwed up some plays, knew that was going to happen. Screwed up some bumps, knew that was going to happen. But if we could’ve survived rebounding-wise, we could’ve been ok.”
Hall did return after rising from the floor slowly with his team trailing 58-38 with 16 minutes left. The senior with NBA aspirations struggled before and after landing funny on the ankle he sprained against Montana Western less than a week earlier.
Montana State’s go-to scorer missed seven of his first nine shots on Tuesday, including just five of his first six shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He finished with 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-8 from deep.
The Rock Island, Illinois reentered the game with 12 minutes left and less than a minute later, drilled a 3-pointer, his first of the second half. He followed with a block, then another nothing but net 3-pointer. He showed good explosion on a drive to the rim and a finish off the glass.
Utah State still held a 20-point lead for most of the second half thanks to Merrill’s sweet shooting.
“(Hall) didn’t practice yesterday,” Fish said after limiting his star to 26 minutes. “I was a little surprised he made it through the whole game. I sat him there once it got wide there. It’s day to day. Credit his toughness.”
The returning third-team All-Mountain West selection answered with a jumper after the first Hall triple and hit a pull-up 3-pointer to answer the second. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Bountiful, Utah finished with a career high on a night he seemed to have all the answers.
He hit two shots early to push Utah State’s lead to two possessions each time. His second 3-pointer of the first half gave USU a three-possession lead, his consecutive jumpers to end the half gave the visitors a 50-34 lead entering halftime.
Merrill hit a pair of jumpers in the first two minutes of the second half, the second preceding Hall’s ankle tweak to move the advantage to 20. His fifth 3-pointer in seven attempts broke his previous career high of 33 and his final two of eight made free throws in eight attempts capped his best scoring night of his college career.
“He’s a great player and kudos to him because he made his shots,” Frey said. “It’s a team thing that that starts with me. I was guarding him most of the night so that’s on me. You can’t get him get that much space.”
The Bobcats shot 37 percent from the floor as a team, including 44.4 percent in the second half. MSU missed 10 of its 14 3-point attempts in the first half but made 6-of-13 beyond the arc in the second half.
Utah State made nearly half (34) of its 69 field goal attempts, including a 12-of-18 effort by Merrill. The Aggies matched MSU’s total of 10 threes on three less tries and made 23-of-26 from the free throw line.
The teams combined for 31 fouls and 36 free throw attempts in the first half. MSU made 21-of-33 shots from the charity stripe in a game where the two teams were whistled for 55 total fouls.
“When you shoot the ball and you have a chance to be a good shooting team, sometimes you have to adapt to doing the dirty work things,’ Fish said. “We didn’t.
“We made the shots tougher than they needed to be. We got behind and got out of rhythm. We didn’t get any transition break. You stop teams’ transition by rebounding the basketball. They got 16 offensive rebounds. If we don’t rebound the ball, we can’t get out and run. What I thought we could do to them, they dominated the boards and that’s the ball game right there.”
Fish played Frey off the ball for a good portion of the game. Junior college transfer Russell Daniels played 22 minutes, scoring six points, notching one assist and one turnover in his Bobcat debut. Sophomore Lassi Nikkarinen played 15 minutes, scoring three points, dishing out three of MSU’s 12 assists and committing one of MSU’s 13 turnovers.
Frey got a bunch of open looks but missed his first five attempts from deep. He finished 4-of-13 from the floor, 2-of-7 from beyond the arc.
“I thought we put him in a bad situation tonight because one they got to making shots, we had to go to five game and get the ball spaced out and we were nervous shooting the basketball, weren’t where we are supposed to be,” Fish said. “Harry tried to fight it and we put him in some bad situations that really and truthfully were our lack of movement on our end. He pinned his ears back, tried to win the game and that’s what you have to do. He’s got the right attitude. We have to join him.”
Livingston product Ladan Ricketts, a junior college transfer, missed his first three shots as a Bobcat but finished with eight points and making two 3-pointers.
Montana State plays just two more home games during its 10-game non-conference schedule. MSU plays at Assembly Hall against Indiana on Friday night. MSU returns home on Sunday to host Presentation. Four road games — at Colorado State, UC-Santa Barbara, Arkansas and Omaha — come before a November 27 home game against North Dakota.
“You gotta get the players on film and show them and hopefully they take pride in it and they will,” Fish said. “I like this team a lot. We all have deficiencies. We just have to go back and study and get at it.
“There are better days for this team. We’ve just gotta make some adjustments. We’ll get ’em made and get better.”
Reporting and photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.