MISSOULA, Mont. — Before Wednesday night, Cal State Fullerton Coach George McQuarn had little idea how the Titans' odd mix of proven players and inexperienced talent would mesh in a basketball game.
Not knowing may have been preferable to this.
Fullerton, which returns its top two scorers but relies heavily on four players who did not play last season, fell 17 points behind Montana before staging a near-comeback. But the Titans still came up short, losing their season opener to Montana, 71-66, in front of 5,693 in Montana's Dahlberg Arena.
The Titans are 0-4 against Montana and have lost three of their past four season openers. The only victory in the past four openers was a one-point win over St. Mary's in 1984.
Fullerton (0-1) played particularly poorly in the first half, making only 10 of 34 shots (29%).
Montana (3-0) closed off the inside with a zone defense, leaving Fullerton with little more than the three-point shot.
But Richard Morton, Fullerton's leading scorer last season and the only apparent outside threat so far this season, was struggling, and that left Fullerton in trouble.
Morton finished with 21 points, but made only 8 of 21 shots and missed 10 of 13 three-point attempts.
The rest of the Titans didn't exactly help out. Fullerton missed nine shots in the lane in the first half, and the only other Titans to score in double figures were Henry Turner and Oval Miller, who each finished with 10.
The Titans fell behind, 43-26, less than two minutes into the second half, but several Montana turnovers and tough halfcourt defense by the Titans helped Fullerton come back. Fullerton took its first lead of the game, 53-52, with 9:10 remaining and led by as many as three.
But Montana, which was led by K.C. McGowan's 20 points, went ahead by five with two minutes left, and Fullerton never caught up again.
Morton cut it to 69-66 with a three-point shot with 1:10 remaining, but his next two three-point attempts hit the rim and bounced out, and Montana held on.
"We were real out of sync," said McQuarn. "We've got guys who have been playing here three or four years and then new guys. You don't know what's going to happen when you have that."
Other than Morton and Turner, Fullerton's starters combined for only 12 points. Veteran guard Eugene Jackson scored eight points. John Sykes, a sophomore center who did not play basketball last season after transferring from Texas, scored four points. Vincent Blow, a senior but somewhat inexperienced forward, did not score.
Three of the Titans' top four substitutes did not play last season. Bobby Adair, a forward who scored four points, was a redshirt after transferring from Utah. Marlon Vaughn, who was ineligible under the NCAA's Proposition 48, scored three points. Van Anderson, who was a redshirt last season, scored two.
"I had no idea how things would be," McQuarn said. "They were really out of sync the first half, and that's not saying we got in sync in the second."
Fullerton did play better defensively in the second half, and was able to get the ball inside more.
"That was like two different teams, the first and second half," McQuarn said.
Morton, who was forced to shoot from well outside the three-point line in part because of the Titans' inability to get the ball inside against the zone, claimed some of the blame.
"In the first half I take responsibility," he said. "I shot really bad. I was trying to establish the outside game, but the shots were fairly difficult."
Despite all of Fullerton's troubles, Morton nearly helped the Titans send the game into overtime, but both of his three-point attempts in the final minute went in and out.
"The last shot, in particular, felt good," Morton said. "It felt good when it left my hand, and on the follow-through. But unfortunately it went in and out."
As to how long it will take for the Titan players to mesh, McQuarn offered no guesses.
"You're talking about time," McQuarn said. "That's the only thing that can correct this, and it's hard to assess right now. It's sort of like giving the kids the benefit of the doubt now. If it's the same in five, six or seven games down the road, we might be talking differently."
Montana's other two victories--both by four points--came against Wisconsin-Stout and Eastern Montana.