At the peak.
That is what Boise State accomplished Saturday night at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. After scrapping and clawing their way through the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Broncos had already exceeded what had been done in previous years. A tournament championship would only cement this team’s place in Boise State lore. San Diego State is the flagship basketball school of the Mountain West and is what every other program strives to become. Beginning with the 2009 conference tournament, the Aztecs have only missed the title game twice. This game was projected to be a defensive war, and boy was it.
After a lackluster scoring output in the semifinal against Wyoming, Tyson Degenhart came out with a vengeance. From tip-off, he looked much calmer and sunk two three-pointers in the first five minutes. Even though this game wasn’t the brick-fest that occurred in Viejas Arena earlier this season, both teams still had difficulties scoring. By the ten minute mark, San Diego State had a narrow two-point lead at 18-16. The Broncos made it to the foul line quite a bit in the first half, but weren’t able to take advantage, splitting attempts at the line and even missing both shots. Emmanuel Akot exited the game during the last stages of the half due to injuring his ankle, but the reserves came up huge. With the defensive effort of Lucas Milner and Pavle Kuzmanovic, the Broncos held the Aztecs scoreless for the last 5:42. Going into the break, Boise State weathered the storm and held a three-point advantage at 28-25.
The Aztecs came out firing in the second half, going on a quick 5-0 run to retake the lead. Matt Bradley began to make his impact offensively, finding his stroke from outside. Both teams hunkered down on the defensive end as neither were able to create any meaningful separation. Once the clock showed less than eight minutes to play, the game was deadlocked at 45. Similar to the end of the first half, the Aztecs went on a prolonged scoring drought, not finding the bottom of the net for nearly two and a half minutes. During this, Mladen Armus was able to play more aggressive since he was in foul trouble early on. A converted and-one by Armus ignited the Broncos for the last five minutes.
Another two minutes went by with no scoring from either side. Tyson Degenhart hit a beautiful post-shot to extend the Bronco lead to three with 2:20 to go. To no surprise, Matt Bradley took command and responded with a bucket of his own. Degenhart had a chance to effectively end the game with an open three from a few feet beyond the arc, but it bounced off the iron. Bradley took a crack at putting the Aztecs ahead, but his shot didn’t fall as well. Out of a Boise State timeout, Marcus Shaver Jr. drove into the lane and appeared to finish off Brian Dutcher’s crew in highlight fashion, but a charge was called.
Boise State 53 – San Diego State 52.
Shot clock turned off.
One final possession.
The Aztecs chewed clock until the scoreboard read 10 seconds. Matt Bradley muscled his way to the restricted area had a shot. However, Degenhart contested the shot vertically and disrupted the attempt. A scrum transpired after the shot and, amazingly, Bradley came away with the ball outside the key. A pass to Trey Pulliam at the three-point line with Broncos scrambling gave the Aztecs the upper-hand. A pump fake gave Pulliam open space to drive for his signature floater.
Players, fans, coaches, announcers, and the janitors watched the ball make its way to the basket.
There is no right way to describe the journey that Boise State has been on. It was repeated during the post-game festivities that the will and belief in one another is what has sustained this team’s success. The infamous home loss to CSU-Bakersfield, a 3-4 record, and the dismissal of Devonaire Doutrive. Not even M. Night Shyamalan could come up with something as surprising as this season.
Looking at the numbers, only two Aztecs reached double figures. Matt Bradley turned it on in the second half, mustering 17 points and seven rebounds. Lamont Butler was unconscious from downtown, going a perfect three for three and finishing with 16 points. Despite not being an offensive weapon Saturday, Nathan Mensah was a beast on the defensive end as he snatched 10 rebounds and recorded four blocks. The Aztecs shot 35 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc. Free throws were not kind to San Diego State as they shot six for eleven, only good enough for 55 percent.
The Broncos had three players go for ten points or more. Tyson Degenhart, the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, led the way with 13 points and nailed three triples. Abu Kigab followed suit with 11 points, most of them coming from his mid-range game. Kigab’s defense against Matt Bradley, though, was the biggest highlight of his performance. Point-forward Emmanuel Akot did his best on a limited ankle, garnering 10 points. The most surprising stat line of the night was that guard Max Rice made his impact on the glass and not from the perimeter. Rice collected nine rebounds, setting a new career-high for the Bishop Kelly graduate. In all reality, the numbers don’t look all that great. The Broncos only shot 38 percent from the floor and 28 percent from downtown. Similar to the Aztecs, free throw shooting was not an ally Saturday. Boise State went 12 of 21 from the charity stripe, equating to a lowly 57 percent.
With the Mountain West conference tournament in the books, all focus moves towards Selection Sunday. The Mountain West *should* have four teams in the field of 68 with Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, and Wyoming. Seeding projections for the four teams vary two to three spots, but Wyoming is the only team that is at any risk of being left out of the field. San Diego State has the defense to compete with anyone in the nation, and if they find themselves playing in the second round against a one seed, look out. Colorado State’s duo of Isaiah Stevens and “Big Body David Roddy” can take the Rams to the second weekend if the cards fall right. The same can be said for Wyoming with Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado.
As for Boise State, everything that happened this past week was gravy for Bronco fans. An appearance in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 was secured with the automatic bid. Dayton, Ohio is not in anyone’s travel itinerary and the Broncos will be wearing their home whites in the first round. The only white whale that remains for Boise State is a win in the NCAA tournament. The Broncos are 0-7 all time and were tantalizingly close in 2015 when they lost to Dayton by one in the First Four located in…Dayton. The March Madness Selection Show for the men’s tournament will be televised on CBS tomorrow, March 13th, at 4:00 MST (3:00 PST).