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Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via AP, Pool

Tears shed, excitement heightened as Utah State earns NCAA Tournament bid for 3rd straight year

By Sean Walker, | Updated - Mar. 14, 2021 at 5:52 p.m. | Posted - Mar. 14, 2021 at 4:22 p.m.

LOGAN — For the first time since Craig Smith arrived in Logan, Utah State didn't experience the elation of an automatic bid for March Madness and instead sweated through the Selection Sunday wondering if they'd see their name pulled through the 68-team bracket.

Until the final group of the first quadrant.

The 11th-seeded Aggies are scheduled to open the tournament Friday against sixth-seeded Texas Tech at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana (11:45 a.m. MDT TNT). From the ballroom of a hotel in Las Vegas just a few hours before his team flew to Indianapolis, Justin Bean even admits some tears were shed — if not at the selection, then when Smith addressed the team before they jumped on a Zoom call with local media.

"I did shed a few tears," Bean said. "Coach knows how to give a good speech, so he got a few of us."

Smith likes to talk about how he doesn't "bubble watch" or pay attention to media projections about the tournament; he read his first tweet from ESPN's Joe Lunardi today.

But Bean does. He can't get enough "bubble content" and "bracketology." And the former walk-on admits he was worried — based on all that he's read.

"When I saw Wichita State sneak in, I was getting a little worried," Bean said. "But we know it was out of our hands, and thankfully the committee saw we were a tournament caliber team. We deserve to be there, and we know that we have the tools to make a run."

Regardless of if he watches the bubble, Smith didn't get a whole lot of sleep this week as he prepared for back-to-back-to-back games in the Mountain West Tournament. He admits he slept better Saturday night than he has all week. A night owl by tradition, Smith fell asleep shortly after 8:30 p.m. PT, and woke up with a completely calm feeling.

Others doubted. He had a feeling they'd get in. When the third-year Aggie coach who recently signed an extension through 2026 sat down in front of reporters — most of whom have covered his team all year — he clearly quipped "It's so good to see you guys," because Utah State only set aside a Zoom call if the Aggies made the NCAA Tournament.

But Smith never doubted, he insists.

"We finished second in the regular season, got to the championship game, and I knew our metrics were really good," Smith said. "I knew we played a good nonconference schedule, and I knew we had to overcome a lot.

"We want to play, and that's been our motto all year. Then obviously when it gets up on the screen, and you see Wichita State as an 11. But then I thought that helped us as an 11, and seeing UC Santa Barbara as a 12; it showed that it valued not just the BCS schools. That was valued when we saw our 11."

Utah State (20-8) rebounded from a 1-3 start to the season to finish No. 2 in the Mountain West Conference with a 15-4 league record — second-best to No. 19 San Diego State.

The Aggies got a pair of wins over the Aztecs via a two-game home series Jan. 14-16, but losses to Colorado State, UNLV and Boise State kept them from clinching the regular-season title. San Diego State (23-4) will open as a No. 6 seed Friday against Syracuse (16-9) in the Midwest regional.

After dominant wins over the Rebels and Rams in Las Vegas, Utah State's bid for the Mountain West tournament title came to an end in Saturday's 68-57 loss to San Diego State. The Aggies were pushed to the brink of the bubble, and with bid thieving wins by Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament, Georgetown in the Big East, Georgia Tech in the ACC.

But when Cincinnati failed to punch another ticket for the American by a Houston rout, Utah State narrowly survived the bubble to punch its ticket to the Madness for the third straight season.

The bubble opened just wide enough to let in the Mountain West's No. 2 seed — and the Aggies hope to take advantage of it.

"We're just all fulfilled," said Utah State star center Neemias Queta, shortly before exiting a Zoom call to finish packing. "It's all we worked for the whole year. When I saw our name, I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment. At the same time, I want to make sure we go in and do what we want to do.

"We want to go in there to win, not just be there. We're happy but not satisfied."

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