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Tucson, Ariz. • For three years, Utah State has lost in the NCAA Tournament.
And for three years, the USU defeats could be traced to one thing: terrible starts.
This was the season in which the Aggies were supposed to be talented enough and experienced enough to erase that trend. But it wasn't to be on Thursday night in Utah State's 73-68 loss to Kansas State in a Southeast Region first-round matchup.
The Aggies led exactly once, at 6-5 with four minutes gone in the first half. From that point on, the Wildcats dominated.
The starts are something that have plagued USU in the past three tournament appearances. And with questions looming as to why the Aggies haven't been able to exert their will, Stew Morrill said that the adjustment period to big conference opponents has proven to be a challenge.
"We've played really good opponents, and they've done really good jobs," Morrill said. "With the level of quickness and athleticism that we've faced, it takes awhile to adjust. It won't change if we play three or four more games in the preseason against big conference teams. We just don't see that level of athleticism when we're in our league. That being said, we came back and competed really hard. That stretch in the first half was the difference for sure."
Utah State was clearly bothered by Kansas State's defense. The Wildcats denied every pass, they fought through screens, and they made it very difficult for the Aggies to function offensively.
And then there was Tai Wesley. The senior served as USU's barometer in this game. He had two points, three fouls and just a single rebound. He came back to score 16 of his 18 points in the second 20 minutes, but by then the Kansas State lead was too big and the mountain was too deep to climb.
"I started slow," Wesley said. "I got my first shot blocked inside, and the fouls obviously really hurt. I thought I played better in the second half, but a lot of damage was done in the first half."
• Utah State shoots less than 40 percent in the first half.
• The Aggies trail by 11 points at halftime.
• USU starts slow for the third straight NCAA Tournament.