Certainly there will be other victories, at an even higher level, for Marcus Saxon. Maybe for Kevin Rice, too. They're two of the most exciting players to ever wear a Utah State uniform. Some day, Justin Jones may coach a team that advances past the Round of 64; Neal Geddes could pull the trigger on some business deal that sets up his family for life.
But Thursday, Utah State's seniors couldn't fathom anything beyond one final loss, only their eighth in 33 games. What was perhaps the best team in Utah State's history, which set a victory record to prove it, is no more. It was vanquished from the NCAA West Regional's first round in the first of four games at Sacramento's ARCO Arena Thursday afternoon, 82-68 by Maryland."It's over. There's not much to talk about. Twenty-five wins is good, but we were wishing to win our first game," said a subdued Saxon, whose game-high 25 points plus four rebounds, four assists and two steals weren't enough to carry the Aggies through this weekend the way he had last weekend in the Big West Tournament. "There's nothing I can say about it. Catch me on a later date. I'm not too happy, because I felt we had a chance to win that game."
Rice had the same reply, the same resignation. No tears. Just a feeling of not having done enough. "A couple days from now, you ask me that question, and I'll give you a different answer, but right now, it's too early," Rice said.
One thing that has always set this particular team apart for coach Larry Eustachy was its receptiveness to coaching, to doing the right thing.
Even on Thursday, it did what it was supposed to do.
Thirteenth seeds are supposed to be beaten badly by No. 4 seeds, and USU obeyed with its second-worst beating of the season (Utah won by 16).
What hurt was knowing that it actually had the wherewithal to deal with imposing Maryland, which had beaten two No. 1 seeds (Kansas, North Carolina) in the regular season and which is 20-10 despite the nation's roughest schedule. USU just didn't play well for much of the game.
"We played a very difficult team, and we struggled to match their size," said Eustachy, "but there were a lot of disappointments from our end. We really didn't get our game onto the court.
"Our game is rebounding and guarding. They shot 55 percent and outrebounded us by 18 (44-26). The players and myself are disappointed that we couldn't play a better quality of basketball against a very good team," said Eustachy. "When we played right, we had the lead."
Trouble started with the first possession. Pharoah Davis missed a switching assignment, and the Terrapins' Ninja-Turtle center, 6-foot-10, 256-pound Obinna Ekezie, a junior from Nigeria, got the easiest dunk of his life 11 seconds into the game. Eustachy pulled Davis for freshman Brandon Birch. Davis and 6-6 center Donnie Johnson got into foul trouble early trying to stop the Terps' inside game of Ekezie and 6-8 Rodney Elliott during a 14-3 opening run.
"The front line struggled all the way from the first play," said Eustachy.
When Ekezie (7-for-9 for 17 points, seven rebounds) came out, Maryland got bigger with 7-0, 250-pound Mike Mardesich.
Coach Gary Williams said USU's four-guard lineup hurt the Terps until they downsized, too. "We had a little advantage in depth," he said.
With USU missing three layups - a habit that would worsen in the second half when consecutive open dunks clanked out - the Terps held two 11-point leads in the first half. Then came one of the times when the Ags played well, moving out to a 20-18 advantage.
The Ags were outscored 22-12 in the final 7:49 of the first half and missed 21 of 31 second-half shot attempts - five dunks/layins and five threes. USU shot 39 percent for the game. Jones, the NCAA's No. 2 3-point percentage shooter (51.7), was 0-for-5 on bombs and totaled just two points on nine shots.
"We just can't get behind 10 or 12," said Rice. "You're spending all that energy trying to get back into the game."