BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Just when it was starting to look like Utah State had a shot at beating No. 21 Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies’ hopes of an upset were abruptly disassembled at Assembly Hall.

A 24-4 run by the Red Raiders obliterated a brief six-point Utah State lead early in the second half, and Texas Tech cruised to a 65-53 victory Friday afternoon.

“I thought we really defended hard and well,” USU head coach Craig Smith said following the season-ending loss. “I thought we really made them earn everything, maybe with the exception of after we got a six-point lead with about 16:47 to go, they went onto score on 11 of the next 12 possessions. 

“And that hurts you.”

“I thought we got our shot. We had clean looks, and I felt like most of the night we had clean looks. It’s just we kept turning it over. Like I said, that’s what they do. They’re big, long and they’re athletic, except for at the 5 spot, and they cover a lot of ground and they clearly just swarm you.” — Utah State coach Craig Smith

While the sixth-seeded Red Raiders (18-10) suddenly went on an offensive tear during the seven-minute stretch that drastically altered the ballgame, Utah State’s season-high 22 turnovers certainly played a critical role as well. Texas Tech came into the contest forcing an average of more than 16 turnovers a game, but the 11th-seeded Aggies (20-9) already had 13 miscues by halftime — and yet they still miraculously led 26-23 at intermission.

“We had 13, but it felt like 20,” Smith proclaimed. “I did a halftime interview and they said 13, and honestly I thought it was more than that. 

“I thought we got our shot. We had clean looks, and I felt like most of the night we had clean looks. It’s just we kept turning it over. Like I said, that’s what they do. They’re big, long and they’re athletic, except for at the 5 spot, and they cover a lot of ground and they clearly just swarm you.”

Junior center Neemias Queta, who played all but 17 seconds of Friday’s game, gave the Aggies an incredible effort, totaling 11 points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and five turnovers. Junior forward Justin Bean scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while junior guard Marco Anthony finished with 11 points. 

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The Aggies shot 44% as a team, but they did most of their damage in the paint, going just 4 for 19 from 3-point range. Junior guard Brock Miller (six points) finished 2 for 7 from long distance, while freshman guard Rollie Worster (six points) went 2 for 5 and senior forward Alphonso Anderson (six points) finished 0 for 5 in his final collegiate game. 

“The hard part was I felt like we had more clean looks from the 3 tonight than we have all year,” Smith noted. “Honestly, it kind of reminded me of our first UNLV game where we had clean look after clean look after clean look, they just wouldn’t fall in the first half. 

“... And in the second half, I thought we had some really good looks at it, and we weren’t able to capitalize.”

Conversely, Texas Tech seemingly couldn’t miss from any range for much of the second half. After totaling just nine field goals in the first half, the Red Raiders went 17 for 30 (56.7% in the second half). Texas Tech’s quick and athletic squad also turned those 22 Aggie turnovers into 28 points on the other end of the court. 

After the game, Red Raiders’ head coach Chris Beard joked that he fired his team’s shooting coach at halftime.

“In all seriousness, I told the guys, ‘Man, just take a deep breath here, think about all the time you spent in the gym, the summer, the spring, early mornings, late nights, 300 club, extra shots. We put in the work, man. ... We earned the right to make some shots. Let’s don’t go panic here at halftime and change our offense, let’s just take a deep breath and be the best version of ourselves.’

“Now, we did get a little more aggressive offensively, turn up the heat a little bit because their half-court defense is so good. I thought our best chance was to get some shots in transition. So, from a coaching standpoint, give the guys credit. They listened. ‘Hey, let’s go get some shots early because this defense is so good.’”

Texas Tech ended up with four players in double figures, led by junior guard Mac McClung (16 points). Junior guard Kyler Edwards added 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals, while sophomore guard Terrance Shannon Jr. and sophomore guard Kevin McCullar both finished with 10 points. 

The win vaulted Texas Tech into a second-round matchup against Arkansas, which beat Colgate, 85-68. The Raiders, who went to the Elite Eight in 2018 and lost in the National Championship game to Virginia in 2019, are clearly optimistic they can put together another run in the tournament despite tying for sixth-place in the Big 12 Conference during the regular season.

“In terms of our guys, it’s a happy locker room because we, again, knew that we had a tough draw,” Beard said. “Utah State is one of the most disciplined teams in the tournament, and Queta is a good player inside. They offer all sorts of challenges, so we’re pleased to win.”

Playing in front of a “crowd” of just 500 people, the Aggies found themselves down 5-0 to start the game, but quickly rallied behind Queta and scored the game’s next 10 points. The Raiders then responded with a 14-2 burst that left Utah State down 19-12, but a near baseline 3-pointer from Anthony seemed to spark the Aggies, who, despite continuing to turn the ball over, somehow managed to outscore Tech by a 14-4 margin over the final 5:39 of the opening half.

While the Raiders got the first basket following intermission, a bucket by Anthony and Miller’s second 3-pointer left the underdogs up 31-25 with just under 17 minutes left. However, that would be the high-water mark for the Aggies as Shannon Jr. scored six points during an 8-0 burst that forced Smith to call a timeout less than two minutes after Miller’s trey. 

The break did nothing to help the Aggies, as another turnover led to a 3-pointer by Edwards, and Texas Tech continued to added to its lead the rest of the contest. Utah State never threatened a comeback as the Red Raiders went up by as many as 16 points down the stretch.

“It’s a unique relationship in this tournament with whoever you play in the first game because you really have about a week to prepare and you learn so much about them,” Beard said of the Aggies. “I saw every game they played, every press conference. You really feel like you’re kind of a part of their team by the time the ball is finally tipped.

“They had an outstanding season, lost a couple games early and they just went on a run. Very worthy of their bid, and just got a lot of respect for their program. Want to wish all those players a healthy offseason and summer. I just can’t tell you how much respect I have for them.”