MISSOULA — The scene is as clear as day.
Exactly one year ago, Rollie Worster and the Missoula Hellgate Knights boys basketball team stood in disbelief at Worthington Arena in Bozeman. The Knights had just defeated Billings West in the State AA semifinals and were one win away from a state championship and an unbeaten season.
That would never happen, as moments after Hellgate beat West, the State AA tournament and the rest of the high school basketball tournaments in Montana were canceled due to the discovery of the first positive COVID-19 cases in the state.
Fast forward one year later to today, and despite that heartbreaking end to his high school career, Worster has transitioned seamlessly to the college level and is now gearing up for the biggest men's college basketball tournament of the year.
Worster, a true freshman point guard at Utah State, is readying for his first taste of the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies (20-8) drew a No. 11 seed in the South Region during Sunday's selection show and will take on No. 6 Texas Tech (17-10) on Friday at 11:45 a.m. in the first round of the tournament, an annual event that was also canceled in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.
"I mean, I think it’s a huge deal to make it to this tournament. I think that’s what everyone looks forward to and expects," Worster told MTN Sports. "That’s what your end goal is, is to get here at the end of the season. But I just think losing the opportunity last year really opened up people’s eyes to how special this place really is and to make it here how big of a deal it is."
The Aggies fell to San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference championship game on Saturday, denying them the automatic berth into the tournament. Still, most believed Utah State's resume was enough to earn an at-large bid, a thought confirmed on Sunday.
"I'm just super excited. Our whole team is," Worster said. "Just to see our name pop up on the screen, I was super nervous just sitting there. Had obviously never done that before and was sweating a little bit but relieved once we got on the screen so just super excited and happy to be here."
The conference tournament served as Worster's first taste of the college basketball postseason as well. He noted how every game was "win or go home" and how Utah State knew it needed some wins at the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas if it wanted to make it to this point. The Aggies did just that with wins over UNLV and Colorado State leading into the championship game against San Diego State.
Worster and Utah State are already in Indianapolis where the entire men's tournament will be held. Worster said Monday was a quarantine day for the team while they await COVID-19 test results. Once tests come back negative, the Aggies can start practices, film study and walk-throughs leading into Friday's game.
Every basketball player dreams of the opportunity to play in the tournament, and now the former Hellgate standout gets to experience it first-hand.
"It definitely sank in (Sunday) night," Worster said. "We got here in the hotel, there’s a huge bracket on the whole face of the hotel and stuff and it says 'March Madness' everywhere and I was super excited so you’re not really in the moment. Like everyone’s taking pictures and stuff. Once I got back to my hotel room and kind of laid in bed, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re really here, this is super cool,’ and I think we’re just ready to go play honestly."
The two-time Gatorade player of the year in Montana started right away in his true freshman season at Utah State. While standing out from the get-go, Worster overcame some adversity as well. A foot injury late in the regular season cost him three games before he eased back into the lineup with some minutes restrictions. However, Worster returned in time for the team's final three regular-season games -- all wins -- along with the conference tourney after working his way back to full health.
He's appeared in 25 games for the Aggies, starting in 24 of them, and is averaging 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while playing 27.8 minutes per contest. In the opening round of the conference tournament against UNLV, Worster went for 14 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals for the Aggies.
He'll have the state of Montana's eyes on him when the Aggies take the court, and Worster carries that with pride.
"It means a lot. I have a ton of support back home," he said. "Friends and family and everyone texting me every day, my phone was blowing up when it came up on the screen that we made it. It’s just really cool to have that support. It helps keep me pushing and working every day."