The opponent Thursday in Sacramento will be big, tough, pressing Maryland, a No. 4 seed that's mad about that and mad that it lost in overtime to North Carolina, one of the NCAA's four No. 1 seeds, this week in the ACC semifinals for the second straight year. The Terrapins played the nation's toughest schedule and thrived on it.
But at the moment, on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon in Reno's Lawlor Events Center as Utah State's name flashes across the television screen and the Aggies find out where they're going with the automatic bid they'd won an hour earlier - with a 78-63 over Pacific in the Big West Tournament championship game - there is only a huge cheer from the private gathering of players, coaches, friends and family.For that special moment, as players lounged on the floor in an auditorium in front of two TV sets, wearing their championship hats and holding their championship watches, it didn't matter whom they'd have to play, or where. Only that Utah State would play somebody in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in exactly 10 years. Its last NCAA opportunity was in 1988, when a Rod Tueller-coached 21-10 club won what was then the PCAA Tournament and fell by three to Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAAs.
This Aggie team, under Larry Eustachy, who makes the dance for the first time as a head coach, broke the school record for wins in a season Sunday afternoon when No. 25 came at the expense of the defending Big West-champion Pacific Tigers.
"I'm enjoying it," said Eustachy of the satisfaction over finally breaking through the NCAA barrier. "It's special for us."
Western Division-champion Pacific (23-9) carried a 16-game win streak into Sunday's contest. Eastern Division-champion USU (25-7) did not lose this season (9-0) to a Western Division team, and the Aggies went into Sunday's game with a record of winning 28 straight games when they led at halftime. Now, it's 29.
Utah State scored the final 13 points of the game after nearly losing what had been a 15-point lead, 56-41 with 12:53 left in the second half. Pacific fed its 7-foot-1 projected NBA lottery pick Michael Olowokandi, and he scored 14 straight Tiger points while the Aggies managed six points, and UOP was down 65-63 with 2:55 left and brimming with confidence.
But the Aggies were not worried. "I've got all the respect in the world for Pacific," said Eustachy. "But I just thought we weren't going to be denied."
"We knew Pacific would come back and make a run. They're a pretty good team," said the Aggies' Superman, Marcus Saxon, who scored 23 points and was named tournament MVP, though Olo-wo-kandi had game-highs of 32 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. "But once we got the lead, we knew that they wouldn't get back ahead of us."
Olowokandi missed the second free throw of a 1-and-1 that would have cut the lead to one, Kevin Rice rebounded, and Saxon made a no-look pass from the baseline to Rice for a bucket that gave USU a four-point lead. The Tigers never scored again, while the Aggies scored the game's final 13 points.
The celebration began. Saxon, Rice, Justin Jones and Donnie Johnson had a group hug at center court as Pharoah Davis was putting in the final two points from the line. Big Blue climbed atop the basket to wave an Aggie flag. Fan Andy Peterson bounded around the court flapping his arms like the St. Joseph's Eagle mascot. USU students vaulted the press table. Rice carried the game ball with him everywhere.
Jones, sick and on medication all week but 5-for-6 from the field (3-for-3 on threes) for 17 points Sunday, hung in the background as much as he could. He couldn't bring himself to smile. Too numb. A coach's son, he'd wanted this since he was 3. And now he could hardly believe it.
"He's happier than anybody; he just doesn't show it," said Eustachy.
Dave Isaacson, who missed the last 12 games with his second broken foot bone of the season, was the first called to center court to receive his championship watch. MVP Saxon was the last. Minutes later, asked about going to the NCAAs, Saxon said, "One shining moment."
Saxon's 23 points and five assists and Jones' 17 were followed by 14 points and eight rebounds from Rice. Johnson scored 10 with eight boards and played Olowokandi fairly successfully, beating a man seven inches taller and 48 pounds heavier often enough to give USU a chance. Freshman Brandon Birch, sent in by Eustachy to "beat the (bleep)" out of Olowokandi, gave the Ags a strong 15 minutes.
"We wanted to go right at (Olowokandi)," said Eustachy, who had Saxon driving on him when it was possible. "We knew exactly how to beat this team." The Aggie game plan was to not shoot too many 3-point shots, to penetrate and drive on Olowokandi. "This team cooperates better than any team I've ever had," Eustachy said. "There's a real toughness to us."
Indeed. Geddes took eight stitches to close a wound on his brow. Saxon got clotheslined in the nose and pulled over backward. Johnson took a hard smack on a fast break. Rice played 38 minutes on a painfully sprained ankle. Jones took a shot in the face and played 39 minutes despite the flu.
"This is the best team I've ever coached," Eustachy added. "It starts with a belief in the system, and we have that better than any team I've had."
If it seems the Aggies are taking this huge step into the NCAAs without a lot of whooping and hollering, they are.
"We're happy to be there," said Eustachy. "But we're not satisfied. We're not content. We want to represent our conference well." Even though Thursday's game with Maryland is a David-and-Goliath proposition for Eustachy's Little Team That Could, which starts no one taller than 6-6 Johnson and which plays only seven men regularly, Eustachy says the Aggies may not be done.
"When we're on edge, when we're really thinking and working, we're good," he says. "We've been to Minnesota, the NIT preseason. That helps. We've been to Utah. We've been to Wyoming. We'll relish the situation. I just feel good we got the monkey off our backs (10 years with no NCAA). I'm just so happy for these guys. They put up with a lot of demands."
Eustachy has family near Sacramento and is happy the Aggies' game (at ARCO Arena) is within driving distance (he's claustrophobic in planes and drives to every venue he can). Fans should be able to make the trip, too.
And, oddly enough, the team that's hosting the Sacramento first- and second-rounds of the NCAA Western Regional is the team that USU beat to get there, Pacific. And, just before the Aggie players entered the interview room for their post-game session, UOP coach Bob Thomason, whose team made the NCAAs last year, counseled Saxon, Johnson and Rice in the hallway to hold their poise and play well in the tournament.