No. 17 Utah State takes nothing for granted against Weber State

No. 17 Utah State received a quick reminder of what it will be like to be the hunted this season.

The Aggies trailed Montana State by a bucket with six minutes remaining before a 17-7 run secured an 81-73 victory Tuesday behind Mountain West preseason player of the year Sam Merrill and junior college transfer Alphonso Anderson, who had a breakout debut.

"We're going to get everybody's best shot," Anderson told the Aggies' radio network.

"Everybody wants to be the one to knock off the top dog. That's kind of how this team was last year. They were chasing those guys, knocking off the big teams. Now the roles are kind of reversed, but it's really not because we are out there hunting everybody."

Utah State will face another test against in-state rival Weber State on Friday. The Wildcats, playing their season opener, have won the last two in the series behind senior guard Jerrick Harding, the preseason Big Sky player of the year. It is unclear if Harding, the best player on campus since Damian Lillard, will play.

Merrill scored 28 points and tied a school record by making 17 of 18 free throws against Montana State, when the Aggies shot only 37.7 percent from the field but overcame that by making 35 of 45 free throws.

Anderson, a 6-foot-7 junior, was a big part of that, scoring 10 of his 13 points and making all eight free throw attempts in the final 7:02. He also spent time guarding Montana State's bigs while 7-foot center Neemias Queta, the reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year, remains out while recovering from a July knee injury.

"We played 'small ball,' I say that in quotes, but I feel like I can match up with one through five," said Anderson, who played at North Idaho College last season after originally enrolling at Montana.

"We complete really hard for these moments. We have to get better. We have to play every team like it's a great team."

Utah State coach Craig Smith saw plenty of room for improvement for a team that was the unanimous choice to win the Mountain West after taking the regular-season and conference tournament titles over favored Nevada last season.

"We have to tighten things up, no doubt," Smith told the radio network. "I didn't feel like we were on attack (early). We have to understand what got us here. That's ball movement, player movement, sharing the ball.

"'Phons' was huge for us down the stretch. You don't just go replace probably an NBA player like Queta. That's never going to be an excuse for me, but it's an adjustment. There are some things we have to fine tune."

Weber State, picked to finish third in the Big Sky preseason coaches' poll, was 18-15 when Harding averaged 21.4 points a game last season. Coach Randy Rahe has returned to a slightly slower pace after trying an up-tempo style a year ago.

"I like our team," Rahe told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I've got a team that I think has the potential to a very good defensive team and rebounding team."

--Field Level Media