The Utah State women's basketball team's NCAA tournament hopes came to a thudding conclusion last week in a WAC Tournament loss to Idaho.
It was a hurtful blow to the Aggies, who had harbored dreams of the Big Dance. But coach Jerry Finkbeiner was heartened to see texts from three of his seniors over the weekend asking to keep playing as long as they had an opportunity.
"Sometimes, you have to drag kids back to the gym to get them ready for the postseason," he said. "I'm really pleased this senior class wanted to take the court again."
Utah State will have a chance to play and win on Thursday night in the first round of the Women's Basketball Invitational against South Dakota, a team the Aggies edged earlier on a late 3-pointer by Devyn Christensen.
Nothing truly replaces the disappointment of missing out on the NCAA bracket, but Finkbeiner and his Aggies are glad to be a part of the postseason. It will allow Utah State to play for a tournament win, while also allowing Finkbeiner to build for his second season with the returning core.
Although standouts Devyn Christensen and Jenna Johnson won't be returning to the starting lineup next year, players such as Jennifer Schlott, Franny Vaaulu and Makenlee Williams figure prominently into the team's future plans. When the Aggies go to the Mountain West next year, Finkbeiner wants to play at an even higher tempo than this season.
WAC Tournament winner Idaho has been rewarded with a No. 16 seed in a game against Connecticut this weekend, so the Aggies hope to at least have a longer postseason than they otherwise might have.
"The NCAA experience is a good thing, but you can also play only one game," Finkbeiner said. "The chance to win is valuable for our kids. We're playing for our future."
That is indeed true, but another reason Finkbeiner and the Utah State administration sprung for the tournament, which requires guaranteed up-front ticketing, was to give the seniors another home game.
Johnson was an all-WAC honoree this year, described by Finkbeiner as the "guts" of the program. Pualei Furtado was a scrappy guard off the bench.
Christensen leaves the Aggies as the all-time scoring leader in program history. Her 37-point game in the WAC Tournament still ended in defeat, so Finkbeiner was glad she gets another chance to win.
"I'm happy for her in some ways she's grown the most," he said.
The WBI is a 16-team tournament, with a championship game culminating on March 30 or 31. Finkbeiner said Thursday's game would likely be Utah State's only home contest.
South Dakota (17-15) at Utah State (18-13)
O Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Logan
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
Radio • 1390 AM
Records • South Dakota (17-15); Utah State (18-13)
Last meeting • USU 70, SD 69 (Dec. 20)