RENO, Nev. - Less than a minute into his biggest game of the season, Tai Wesley took it on the nose.
And soon, he and the rest of the Aggies would take it on the chin.
While double teaming New Mexico State's Hamidu Rahman in the post, Utah State's leading scorer and rebounder was clocked on the bridge of his nose as the 6-foot-11, 245-pound senior threw his arms out. As blood started to gush from his nostrils, Wesley was forced to the Aggie bench with 19:05 still left in the first half of the championship game of the WAC Men's Basketball Tournament.
Although he was immediately attended to by trainer Mike Williams and team doctor Trek Lyons, Wesley's nose continued to bleed, coloring several white Gatorade towels a bright red. Before long, the junior was escorted to the locker room by Lyons, leaving an open chair on the Utah State sideline.
"I didn't know if he'd be back. I assumed he would, but you never know," said USU head coach Stew Morrill, who kept stealing worried looks back at his bench during Wesley's absence.
"But Tai being Tai, if they didn't tell him he couldn't play, then there was no way in the world he wouldn't end up playing."
Welsey returned to the court at the Lawlor Events Center with just under 15 minutes left in the first half, prompting cheers from the many Aggie fans expecting to witness a second straight WAC Tournament championship.
A best-case scenario for Utah State would have been that Wesley returned to action and began to dominate the New Mags as he did just a week ago in Logan: the Provo native went 9-of-10 from the floor on his way to a game-high 24 points in that 81-63 throttling of New Mexico State.
Unfortunately, Wesley's nose continued to bleed, forcing him to come out of the game several more times and insert long cotton rolls into both nostrils, hampering his breathing. The Aggie big man never seemed to find his rhythm the rest of the first half, and while Wesley was solid after halftime, he and Utah State clearly weren't the same team that had destroyed Boise State and Louisiana Tech in their previous two tournament games.
New Mexico State's stunning 69-63 upset ended the Aggies' 17-game winning streak, disappointed an amazing crowd that gathered in Reno from all around the region, and left Utah State's postseason dreams up in the air ... as well as Wesley's status for any future games.
When asked about his nose following the bitter loss, Wesley responded succinctly: "It's broken."
And so might Utah State's season.
Despite a regular-season WAC title, a 27-7 record, an RPI of 26 prior to Saturday's setback and a strength of schedule of 103, the Aggies are far from locks to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are announced this afternoon. While there is certainly reason for optimism - WAC commissioner Karl Benson proclaimed the Aggies as in following Thursday's win over Boise State, and ESPN's Bracketologist Joe Lunardi was predicting late Saturday night that USU would be a No. 11 seed and face Texas A&M in New Orleans - Morrill has been here before and knows better than to take anything for granted.
Remember the 25-3 team from 2003-04 that was ranked in the Top 25 before being upset by Cal State Northridge in the Big West Tournament? It was left out of the Big Dance much to Morrill's shock and horror.
Of course, the 2005-06 squad that finished the season 23-9 did manage to get an at-large bid after losing to Nevada in the championship game of the WAC Tournament, so there is also reason to believe "Utah State" will eventually emerge on the big board today.
"You know what? It's really a great test for leagues like ours and schools like us," Morrill replied when asked about his team's chances of making a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. "You win 17 in a row, you win the league outright by three games, you come to the conference touranment and win two games handily, and then you lose in the finals to a good team. Your RPI is very good and your strength of schedule is better than a lot of other teams that are being talked about, so if we don't get in ... it's a ... well, it makes it really tough.
"... What do we have to do to get in?"
Morrill added that he finds it difficult to believe the WAC, which is currently rated as one of the 10 best conferences in the country, is just a one-bid league "no matter what."
"If you look at our body of work, we should be in, there's no question about it," he proclaimed. "But who knows? ... Hopefully they'll come out with the right decision, and that's to put us in the tournament."
And maybe - just maybe - Saturday's loss won't be a devastating setback and the Aggies will still manage to reach the NCAA Tournament ... even if it is by a (broken) nose.