SACRAMENTO — Thursday afternoon’s 76-65 loss to No. 7 seed Missouri in an NCAA Tournament first-round game — closer than the final score suggested — obviously wasn’t the kind of ending that the Utah State Aggies wanted after an otherwise outstanding season 

Naturally, that sobering fact was written all over the faces of stars such as Steven Ashworth, Taylor Funk, Sean Bairstow and Dan Akin as the Aggies exited the court at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento, their victory drought in the Big Dance having been extended to 22 years.

“Looking at the season, I made the best memories of my life with these guys. They are my brothers. Credit to the coaching staff for bringing me out here.” — Utah State forward Taylor Funk.

But the Aggies regrouped nicely from the post-game podium, just as they had done in the second half to roar back and take leads of 49-47 and 51-49 before Missouri’s Kobe Brown played like his namesake in the 10 minutes and willed the Tigers to their own history-defying win.

“When you finally fight all the way back, and you take the lead, then all of a sudden that kind of takes the life out of you (when you give it up),” said USU coach Ryan Odom. “It is unfortunate, but I’ll tell you what I told the guys after the game: There’s only one team that’s going to finish with a win in this and going to have tremendous joy.”

That team wasn’t the Aggies, obviously, but Funk said it still can’t take away what was a strong effort against talented Missouri.

“We never gave up,” Funk said. “We didn’t hang our heads when those shots went in (3-pointers by Brown and D’Moi Hodge). We continued to battle. We got to give credit where credit is due. I mean, that team is not here for no reason. We gave them our best shot, and they made more shots than us at the end of the day.”

Missouri was 7 of 25 from deep in a 72-61 loss to No. 1 overall seed Alabama last week in the SEC tournament, but made 10 on the same number of attempts against the Aggies.

Meanwhile, Utah State entered the game No. 5 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (39.3%) but was 4 of 24.

Ashworth said it was a combination of Mizzou’s defense and the Aggies’ missing shots they normally make.

“I think obviously there’s a little bit of both there. There has to be some credit given to Missouri, their style of defense, what they like to do to teams,” he said. “At times, even if you’re getting open looks in those situations, you can be a little rushed into those shots. I think the first half we had a little bit of that.”

Ashworth lamented a shot that Funk made — from the corner in front of the Missouri bench — in the first half that was wiped away because an official said Funk had stepped on the line before taking the shot.

“I was right there; I don’t think he stepped out,” Ashworth said. “… That could have been the one to open it up in the first half.”

From the podium, the Aggies opened up about what made this team special, particularly Funk, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s by way of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who took a big chance when he came west to a state of which he was not familiar.

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“Looking at the season, I made the best memories of my life with these guys,” Funk said, tears welling up in his eyes. “They are my brothers. Credit to the coaching staff for bringing me out here.

“It was easy, you know?” he continued. “We had our ups and downs. Just the attitude on this team has always been positive. Steven (Ashworth), this kid’s one of the best leaders I have ever been around in my life.”

Odom took over from there as Funk fought back tears.

“These guys have a genuine care and love for one another, a brotherhood,” Odom said. “It’s hard to end your season. These guys have given the coaching staff, Cache Valley, the state of Utah, for that matter, anybody that loves basketball, a tremendous amount of joy this season because of how they handle themselves, not only on the court but off the court.”

Utah State Aggies forward Dan Akin dunks the ball during the NCAA Tournament between Utah State and Missouri at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 16, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News