Logan • The Utah State Aggies started the season with some high expectations, being ranked the No. 17 team in the country by the Associated Press before playing a single game. Then the Aggies went ahead and trounced their first and only exhibition opponent, College of Idaho.

But Tuesday at The Spectrum against Montana State was USU’s first official foray into the 2019-20 season. Although the game was tight throughout, the No. 17 Aggies found a way to beat the Bobcats 81-73.

“As agonizing and as frustrating as this game was at times, at the end of the day I think this is going to really help us because you found a way to win a close game when the chips were down,” USU coach Craig Smith said.

Senior guard Sam Merrill led the Aggies with 28 points on 5 of-14 shooting. Most of production came at the free throw line, where he made 17 of 18, tying a school record.

Bobcats senior guard Harald Frey scored a game-high 34 points, missing only four of his 10 3-point attempts.

The Aggies and Bobcats exchanged blows and leads down the stretch of the game. For most of the second half, neither team held more than a four-point lead.

Utah State trailed 66-64 with 5:25 left in the game. But the Aggies scored 10 unanswered points to gain enough separation for the victory. Aggies junior forward Alphonso Anderson scored six of those 10.

Montana State took its biggest lead of the game at 61-58 when Jubrile Belo finished a lob dunk. The Aggies retook the lead with four consecutive free throw, but Bobcats senior guard Harald Frey made a 3-pointer to regain the lead.

The Bobcats took a 56-55 lead when junior guard Amin Adamu made a layup in transition with just over 10 minutes left in the game. Diego Brito answered back for the Aggies to regain the lead with less than 9 minutes remaining.

Merrill made his first four shots of the second half after going just 1-of-5 in the first. His first 3-pointer of the game broke a 42-42 tie with 15:59 remaining.

“I wanted to come out and be aggressive in that second half,” Merrill said. “Fortunately I was finally able to find some space and make some shots.”

The Aggies went up by as many as nine points in the first half. But Montana State just wouldn’t go away, burying timely shot after timely shot. Frey made one such shot in the second half, swishing a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc to beat the shot clock.

The Aggies took a 27-18 lead with a triple from junior forward Alphonso Anderson, marking Utah State’s biggest lead of the first half. But the Aggies score only 10 points after that and went cold offensively.

Both teams shot well under 40% from the field in the first half. What kept the Bobcats in the game through some of USU’s short bursts were their timely 3-pointers. Montana State shot 5-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first.

The Aggies didn’t have star sophomore center Neemias Queta, who has yet to return from a knee injury he suffered in the offseason during a tournament in Portugal. But his temporary replacement, the 7-foot-2 Polish center Kuba Karwowski, filled in admirably in his stead.

While Karwowski didn’t score in 19 minutes of play, but made his presence felt defensively. He amassed four blocks on the evening, three of which came on the final possession of the first half.