We played really played hard, and I thought we showed some really good toughness and togetherness — the things that we talk about all of the time. —WSU coach Randy Rahe
OGDEN — Stew Morrill was in the stands at the Dee Events Center Friday night to witness a very Stew Morrill-like battle between two of his former assistants.
In the season opener for both teams, Weber State managed to prevail over Utah State, 65-59, despite shooting just 42.3 percent from the field and knocking down just 6 of 22 3-point attempts.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” declared WSU head coach Randy Rahe, who spent 13 seasons as an assistant under Morrill at Colorado State and USU. “We played really played hard, and I thought we showed some really good toughness and togetherness — the things that we talk about all of the time.
“Sometimes when your offense isn't working great you’ve got to try and win games with defense and rebounding, and I thought our kids really bought into that.”
Plagued by injuries, the short-handed Wildcats (1-0) built a 12-2 advantage to start the contest, and never gave up allowed the Aggies (0-1) to take the lead despite two ties and several brief runs that cut the lead down to one or two points.
Senior guard Ryan Richardson led the way offensively for Weber State, knocking down 6 of 12 field goal attempts, including four 3-pointers, on his way to 20 points. Junior center Zach Braxton also came up big for the Wildcats, going 9 for 11 from the floor for 18 points and pulling down eight rebounds.
“I thought Zach was a man tonight; he was a man,” Rahe declared. “I thought he was great on both ends: defensively, rebounding, scoring the ball. I thought he had a great all-around game.”
The Wildcats, who have won two straight games against the Aggies, did shoot 52 percent in the second half following a 34.5 percent performance in the opening half. But even then, Weber State managed to take a 27-24 lead into halftime thanks to an even more dismal offensive effort by the Aggies.
Utah State shot just 33.3 percent as a team in the first half, and finished at 37 percent for the game while knocking down only 4 of 15 3-point attempts.
“It was just a really poor offensive performance by us, really in all areas,” said USU head coach Tim Duryea, an assistant under Morrill for 14 of his 17 seasons at Utah State. “Our shot selection, our ball handling, our decision making — it was just a really nervous and poor offensive performance.”
Utah State’s leading returning scorer from last season, sophomore guard Koby McEwen got into serious foul trouble early on against the Wildcats and was limited to just eight minutes in the first half after being called for three infractions.
McEwen ended up going 3 for 10 from the floor and scoring nine points in 24 minutes, while his backcourt mate, sophomore Sam Merrill, also had an off night (2 for 9, five points, three assists and two turnovers).
“(McEwen) was in and out of the flow all night,” Duryea noted. “Sam Merrill wasn’t the usual Sam and missed some looks that he usually makes. Those two are really our guys and our leaders, and when they shoot 5-for-19 and make some of the decisions they made, then that will be tough for us to overcome.”
Senior forward Alex Dargenton (12 points) and junior guard DeAngelo Isby (11 points) were the only Aggies to reach double figures.
With McEwen in foul trouble just seven minutes into the game, Duryea plugged freshman Crew Ainge in at point guard, much to the delight of his father, former NBA star and current Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and his family. Ainge ended up playing just five minutes, while former Davis High guard Abel Porter logged 11 minutes at the point.
Sophomore guard Jerrick Harding, who put up 14 points during the Cats’ victory in Logan last year, struggled for most of the game with foul trouble and poor shooting. But with Utah State closing in late — USU got to within two points with just over three minutes remaining — Harding stepped up and made some key plays to keep the Aggies at bay.
“He had a tough night,” Rahe said of Harding, who finished with eight points on 3-of-10 shooting. “But I don’t worry about him. I just know that he’s going to eventually find a way to be productive. That’s who he is. It’s in his DNA to score.”