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Gregory Bull, AP
Weber State's Joel Bolomboy (21) tries ot shoot over Arizona forward Aaron Gordon during the second half in a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament Friday, March 21, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
We know we can play with anybody in the country. A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people thought we would come in and just get blown out. —Weber State freshman Richaud Gittens

SAN DIEGO — Understandably so, Weber State freshman Richaud Gittens went largely unnoticed in the first half of the Wildcats' NCAA tournament loss to Arizona on Friday.

In his first-ever tourney experience, Gittens seemed content to defer to Weber State’s seniors on the offensive side of the court, finishing with just three points in 12 minutes. Those seniors, however, kept prodding him to play more aggressively and not worry about making mistakes.

He eventually settled in, scoring seven straight points during a 60-second stretch of the second half, which began Weber State’s late push that ultimately trimmed Arizona’s lead from 21 points to seven over the last 10 minutes.

It was the freshman moment coach Randy Rahe was hoping for — the moment when the circus surrounding the NCAA tournament slows down, when the nerves fade, and when a player finds that next gear necessary to succeed.

Gittens played 15 minutes in the second half, finishing the game with 12 points, but his biggest takeaway should have long-reaching effects on the future of the Weber State program.

“We know we can play with anybody in the country,” said Gittens. “A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people thought we would come in and just get blown out.”

Despite trailing by 21 points at one point in the second half, Weber State fought back before falling 68-59, the only No. 16 or No. 15 seed to lose by singles digits in the second round of this year’s NCAA tournament.

Rahe is excited what the experience for freshmen Gittens and Jeremy Senglin, along with sophomore Joel Bolomboy, means to the future of the program.

“What a great experience for them. It can do nothing but help us if we get back. Something tells me we’ll be back with this group of young kids,” said Rahe. “You can’t buy this kind of experience, so if we’re able to get back here in the next year or two with this group, you never know: We might be able to do some more damage.”

Gittens can’t wait.

“I plan on coming back to the NCAA tournament for the rest of my collegiate career. We all know what it takes now, and we just got to keep working harder and harder than we ever have. This is not the last you’ll see of Weber State,” he said.

While the future is bright for the program with the three major contributing underclassmen returning, Rahe stressed that his seniors deserve a lot of the credit for laying the foundation for the youngsters and getting Weber State back into the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.

“I’ve got four seniors. I’ll tell you what, it wasn’t easy in their period at Weber State. We had some tough, tough losses in conference tournaments. We came up one game short of winning regular-season championships a couple different times,” said Rahe.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak along the way. These kids, they would not give into it. These seniors, stayed the course, they believed in themselves, and they got us a regular season and a tournament championship this year, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. This team has come further than any team I’ve coached since I’ve been there.”

In the previous two years the Wildcats lost in the Big Sky tournament championship game, but they resolved to take the next step this season and succeeded. With a better preseason next year, and another strong Big Sky campaign, perhaps they can take the next step in the NCAA tournament too.