Last night was the closest a game can feel to March Madness while still being played in February. Both teams had extreme pressure to win this game. San Diego State has been projected within the “First Four Out” and “Last Four In” range for the last few weeks, but a win at ExtraMile Arena would give them a Quad 1 win and dramatically boost their chances of getting into the Big Dance. Boise State looked to continue their journey toward securing an at-large berth and maintaining sole possession of first place in the Mountain West.
It was apparent early that this game would supersede the offensive ineptitude that was witnessed in Viejas Arena in January. The Aztecs jumped out early, gaining an 8-2 advantage thanks to the early impact of big man Nathan Mensah. Boise State head coach Leon Rice played with an extremely short rotation, only utilizing seven players throughout the course of the game. Spark plug Naje Smith entered the game and immediately brought a sense of energy and toughness to the Bronco lineup. It didn’t hurt that he went a perfect two for two from beyond the arc either.
The biggest stretch of the first half was an 18-2 Boise State run that lasted over seven minutes. The last points of the half for the Broncos came from Smith, who hoisted up a desperation three after being blocked with the shot clock about to expire. The fastball-like shot careened off the glass and went in with a foul call. Smith nailed the free throw to convert the four-point play and pushed Boise State into the half, leading 30-20.
After shooting poorly in the first 20 minutes, San Diego State came out on fire from deep to open the second half. Three of their first four buckets came from downtown and three different Aztecs contributed – Matt Bradley, Keshad Johnson, and Lamont Butler. As each minute went by, the Aztecs continued to shave the lead. By the time the media timeout was called with 7:21 left, Brian Dutcher’s squad had trimmed Boise State’s lead to two. However, the Broncos held onto the lead by the tightest of margins until 1:04 showed on the clock.
A Marcus Shaver Jr. miss led to a fast break opportunity and Matt Bradley found a wide open Chad Baker-Mazara in the corner. Without hesitation, Baker-Mazara let it fly and gave the Aztecs their first lead of the game since the 11:19 point in the first half. The ensuing possession for Boise State was disrupted by the Aztec defense, but Emmanuel Akot stepped up and hit a three of his own, putting the Broncos up by one with 35 seconds left. San Diego State responded with a beautifully designed action that allowed Bradley to lob the ball up to Mensah for an easy slam.
The Broncos, down one, let Marcus Shaver Jr. improvise and attempt to create his own shot. For once, that did not go according to plan as Shaver took a deep three and completely missed to the left of the rim.
The air was sucked out of ExtraMile Arena and the writing was on the wall. San Diego State got their revenge and kept their NCAA hopes alive.
Or so we thought.
Matt Bradley, the leader for the Aztecs, was fouled with 7.7 seconds left and had the chance to give them a three-point lead. Bradley is an 80.4 percent shooter from the charity stripe on the season—certainly nothing to scoff at.
The first free throw rimmed out.
The Broncos had life.
The second free throw was a bit strong, clanging off of the back of the iron.
Leon Rice elected to let his players make a play and not call one of his two timeouts, a pattern that he has followed all season.
Abu Kigab, the only Bronco who is guaranteed to not return next year, dribbled across and down the court, peeking at the clock winding down above the backboard. He made his way to the right lane, driving to the basket.
A blown whistle to decide the game.
Two officials raised their arms to indicate a foul on Aztec Nathan Mensah for tripping Kigab.
With 1.7 seconds left in the game, Abu Kigab stepped up to the line for the first of two. He took his standard one dribble and stared at the rim for a full five seconds—an eternity for everyone watching.
It fell straight through. Tie game.
Tyson Degenhart, the freshman phenom, took on the role of seasoned veteran, motioning to the crowd to quiet down for what could be a season-defining shot.
Kigab forced everyone to the edge of their seat with five seconds of silence on the floor.
He nailed the second. The Broncos had miraculously taken the lead with under two seconds to go.
With no timeouts, Brian Dutcher could only hope for an improvised half-court shot. Matt Bradley took a desperation heave for a shot at redemption.
It was no good.
Broncos win 58-57.
Boise State managed to overcome a San Diego State charge in the final minutes and the one factor that has been brought up for the entire season was put in the spotlight.
Free throw shooting.
You can say whatever you like about free throw discrepancy and unfair officiating, but when it came down to crunch time, one team made their free throws, and the other didn’t.
That is what wins games and creates a winning culture in a place like Boise. February collapses have been the expectation, but this Leon Rice team is breaking that mold and showing that winning basketball can occur with the right pieces in place.
The fans of old. The fans of new. The student section known as the “Bronco Corral”. The athletic administration. Team basketball.
All of these factors point towards a bright future for Boise State basketball, and a win like this further cements that.
Beyond the hyperbole, let’s take a look at how each team stacked up statistically.
For San Diego State, they did nearly everything right in the second half to get the win. They shot 45 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc. The three-point line kept the Aztecs in it and propelled them to take the lead. Individually, Nathan Mensah led the way in scoring with 13 points and added 11 rebounds to his name. Matt Bradley broke out of his cold performance in the first 20 minutes, finishing with 12 points.
Boise State shot quite poorly from the field, mustering a lowly 34 percent. The three-point shooting came when it mattered most, but only reached 43 percent. Abu Kigab was the leader of this game, going for 21 points and more importantly, hitting nine of his eleven attempts from the charity stripe. Naje Smith followed suit with 13 points of his own, six of them coming from downtown. Smith was dynamite defensively with four steals and two blocked shots. Marcus Shaver Jr. was the only other Bronco to reach double figures, netting 12 points and corralling seven rebounds. The free-throw shooting wasn’t great by any means, only making 17 of 26 attempts—equating to 65 percent.
Going forward, San Diego State has four games left. Road trips to Wyoming and Nevada will be tough while hosting San Jose State and Fresno State will not be a cakewalk. Currently fourth in the Mountain West standings, they can still improve their seeding prior to the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas. Their next game is a tilt with the San Jose State Spartans in Viejas Arena. The game is scheduled for tomorrow, February 25th at 8:00 PST and will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).
As for Boise State, they continue to improve their resume and a sweep over what many consider the flagship of the Mountain West is no small feat. The Broncos have three games remaining—two of them on the road against UNLV and Colorado State while hosting Nevada on Senior Night. If things go right, Boise State may have the chance to clinch the Mountain West regular season title at home next Tuesday against Nevada.
Boise State’s next battle is in Las Vegas as they match up with Bryce Hamilton and the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. The game is slated for 8:00 MST and will be televised on CBS Sports Network (CBSSN).