Tournament blues: Déjà vu versus USU

At Utah State a month ago, Boise State led by seven points at halftime—and watched it slip away in a 71-65 loss. Last night in the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals the Broncos were up by eight points at the break, and it happened again. Boise State made big shots in the first half, connecting on its first four three-pointers and leading by as many as 13 points. But it all dried up in a 78-75 loss to USU, drumming the Broncos out of the tournament on their first try for the third straight year. They made only 11 shots in 34 attempts in the second half, and got zero points from the bench after the intermission. So much for being on the “favorable side of the bracket.”

Two things Boise State prides itself on were not dialed in for the team last night. One was defense, as the Aggies drained 56 percent of their three-point tries. The other was the Broncos’ go-to guy. Boise State led for the last time with 2½ minutes left after Chandler Hutchison hit a layin. But after that, the Broncos’ best player missed a jumper with 1:20 left, clanged a free throw with 57 seconds remaining, misfired on another jumper with 11 seconds left, and was long on a three-pointer that would have tied the game just before the buzzer. It was a frustrating way for Hutchison to say goodbye to the Mountain West. He never got his mojo going, playing less than seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls.

Boise State will almost certainly draw an NIT bid. Whether that’s small consolation or not is up to the Broncos. Last year it energized them, as they picked up a road win over Utah, a team that was kind of in the same boat Boise State is now. The Broncos will have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and fans will, too, if a home game is in the offing. The NCAA Tournament will keep Boise State from playing on its home floor until the second round, but there’s a precedent for hosting a game in the Ford Idaho Center. The Broncos played an NIT game against Wisconsin Milwaukee there in 2004 when Taco Bell Arena was occupied by a concert. It’s out of their control, though.

UNLV dearly wanted to rain on its rival’s parade, and things were in the Rebels’ favor when they took a 12-point lead over top-seeded Nevada (known in Las Vegas as “UNR”) early in the second half at the Thomas & Mack Center yesterday. But the Wolf Pack ultimately took control and held off UNLV at the end 79-74. The Pack advances to tonight’s semifinal against dangerous San Diego State, who just beat the Wolf Pack at Viejas Arena last Saturday. The other semifinal pits Utah State against New Mexico, who ran past Wyoming last night 85-75.

The Mountain West women’s championship trophy is sitting on a table somewhere in the Thomas & Mack, awaiting the winner of the title tilt today between defending champ Boise State and upstart Nevada. The Broncos, winners of nine games in a row, are shooting for their third NCAA Tournament berth in the past four years. They’re probably still smarting from their 72-68 loss to the Wolf Pack on January 20, their last home defeat this season. This is the second straight year Boise State has faced a No. 7 seed in the Mountain West final—last March it was Fresno State falling to the Broncos 66-53. No team seeded below No. 5 has ever won this tournament.

Elsewhere on the tournament front—despite 27 points from Brayon Blake, the second-seeded Idaho men opened the Big Sky Tournament in Reno last night with a major disappointment in a 92-78 loss to 10th-seeded Southern Utah. The Vandals now have to wait for postseason options. The College of Idaho men clamped down defensively and stifled Mayfield State 66-50 in the first round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament in Sioux Falls, SD. The Yotes move on tonight against Dakota Wesleyan. And the Northwest Nazarene women are back in the NCAA Division II tournament for the first time in five years. The Nighthawks are 22-4 and are the No. 4 seed in the West Region. They’ll face conference foe Alaska-Anchorage tonight in Azusa, CA.

Life after Cedrick Wilson begins in earnest Monday for Boise State as spring football begins. But the jury is going to be out on what that really means. The leading returnees are seniors A.J. Richardson and Sean Modster, who logged 33 and 32 catches last season, respectively. Key backups Octavius Evans and CT Thomas are looking for breakout seasons after making 15 receptions each as true freshmen last year. But the horizon broadens considerably this summer, when December signees Billy Bowens, Stefan Cobbs, John Hightower, Khalil Shakir and Cameron Thomas join the stable. Shakir is being hailed as the biggest get of the 2018 recruiting class. The Broncos will start with six practices and a scrimmage in the two weeks before spring break.

On the local pro front—momentum from the past month didn’t hang with Troy Merritt yesterday, as he carded a two-over 73 in the first round of the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, FL. Merritt finished sixth at the Valspar in 2015, although he missed the cut in the event last year. And the Kansas City Mavericks visit Boise for the first time in two years tonight and tomorrow night as they take on the Idaho Steelheads. With Philippe Desrosiers on an AHL call-up at Texas, the Steelheads have musical goaltenders going. Thomas Sholl made his Idaho debut Wednesday night with 23 saves in the 2-1 shootout loss to Allen. The Steelies have also added rookie goalie Michael Bitzer, who just completed his college career at Bemidji State. Bitzer recorded a conference record 21 career shutouts.

Overshadowed by all the hoops hoopla right now is the fact the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships begin today in College Station, TX. Boise State will be keyed by its women’s distance medley relay team, which qualified with the leading time in the nation. Three Broncos are also in as individuals: Allie Ostrander in the 3,000-meters, Clare O’Brien in the 5,000, and Sadi Henderson in the 800.

This Day In Sports…March 9, 2015:

Toward the end of its 47th season of four-year basketball, Boise State nabs the first Top 25 ranking in school history. The Broncos made the AP Poll at No. 25 after taking a share of the Mountain West regular season championship by winning 14 of its last 15 games following an 0-3 conference start. The next day star senior Derrick Marks would be named Mountain West Player of the Year, Boise State’s first league MVP since Roberto Bergersen in 1999. The Broncos’ Leon Rice would also nab Coach of the Year honors, and sophomore James Webb III would be MW Newcomer of the Year.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)