Miraculous comeback by Boise State sinks Aggies' at-large hopes

Miraculous comeback by Boise State sinks Aggies' at-large hopes

Mountain West Basketball

Miraculous comeback by Boise State sinks Aggies' at-large hopes

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Game Recap: Boise St. 88, Utah St. 83 (OT)


Broncos erase 19-point deficit in stunning fashion


Contact/Follow @andrewdieckhoff & @MWCwire

High drama in Boise means high stress for Utah State

It seemed for all the world that Utah State was moving past its early struggles in the Mountain West, leading comfortably in Boise with just a few minutes to play.

But a late Boise State surge propelled the Broncos to one of the most unlikely wins of the season in college basketball, the home team escaping with an 88-83 overtime win in ExtraMile Arena.

Freshman guard RayJ Dennis led the comeback charge for Boise State, scoring all of his career-high 19 points in the final three-plus minutes of regulation. Dennis shot 5-for-5, including four three-pointers. He was also a perfect 5-for-5 at the free throw stripe.

It was one of the most electrifying individual performances of the season—not just in the MW, but in the nation—and it came from one of the most unassuming players on the court.

This win wasn’t just unlikely—it was all but impossible.

According to Ken Pomeroy, the win probability for Utah State (14-6, 3-4 MW) peaked at 98.8% after Justin Bean’s free throws put them up 18 points with 4:10 remaining. The Broncos’ 0.2% shot at victory was about as slim as it gets.

But on some nights, college basketball simply refuses to be penned in by such limits.

Utah State’s collapse spoiled a season-high scoring night from its star player, Sam Merrill, who finished with 30 points on the night. Bean had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Neemias Queta added 12 points before fouling out, but those performances weren’t enough to stave off the Broncos’ late push.

The gut-wrenching loss may be the final straw that breaks the back—and heart—of the Aggies.

With just over six minutes to play in regulation, Queta hit two free throws to give the Aggies a 62-43 lead over Boise State, matching the Aggies’ largest lead of the game at 19 points. Over the next two minutes, the Broncos only managed to chisel one point off of that deficit, with Utah State leading 66-48 with four minutes to play.

Then it happened.

RJ Williams drew a foul on Queta, the fifth of the game for the Portuguese sophomore. Over its next few possessions, Utah State alternated between missed shots and turnovers, resulting in a 14-0 run for Boise State that cut the Aggie lead to four points with one minute remaining.

After two Abel Porter free throws with eight seconds to play, Utah State held a 75-70 lead and looked like they would be able to survive Boise State’s big haymaker.

But Dennis came down and capped off his out-of-the-blue explosion, nailing a three-pointer with four seconds remaining.

Boise State’s comeback hinged on forcing one last turnover.

Justinian Jessup didn’t disappoint.

The senior sharpshooter was able to intercept Diogo Brito’s inbounds pass, and he quickly layed the the ball in with 1.3 seconds on the clock, tying the game at 75.

The two teams would take that scoreline with them into overtime. With the wind fully at their backs, Boise State drew first blood in the extra period—and never gave the lead back.

Jessup and Williams both finished in double figures for the Broncos, with Derrick Alston also chipping in 19 to tie Dennis for the team-high in scoring.

The win moves Boise State (12-6, 4-4 MW) to .500 in league play—something Utah State can no longer claim. The Broncos have had issues with depth at times this year, but the big plays out of RayJ Dennis and Max Rice down the stretch is a sign of growth for Leon Rice’s bench.

It’s a step in the right direction for a Broncos team coming off two straight losses to San Diego State and Air Force. Consistency hasn’t been this team’s strong suit this season, but any indications of progress are encouraging. If nothing else, it seems unlikely that Boise State will repeat its dismal showing in the Mountain West after last season’s mess.

For the Aggies, the loss not only hands them a losing record in conference play—it might have completely dashed any remaining hopes that Utah State had to get an at-large bid in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Craig Smith’s team came into the season with massive expectations, but the Aggies have fallen well short of them. Utah State was pegged to win the league going away, with San Diego State a distant second in the league. Questions lingered about how the team would fare with Queta on the mend from a summer knee injury, but a 7-0 start to the season for the Aggies quelled those fears.

But since Thanksgiving, that narrative has been completely flipped on its head, with Utah State going just 7-6 in games since their holiday trip to Montego Bay for the Jamaica Classic. And things are getting worse in 2020, with the Aggies having won just one game in five tries so far in the new year. Those games include losses to Air Force and UNLV.

Even on the road, those were games the Aggies were supposed to win.

At this point, preseason projections have to be thrown out. Though it’s not entirely clear what is wrong with the Aggies, they are nowhere near where the prognosticators—myself included—thought they would be.

The Aztecs, meanwhile, are still standing as the last undefeated team in the nation.

Utah State does hold wins over LSU and Florida, but those victories won’t be enough to buoy the Aggies’ chances at getting an at-large bid. At this point, they may need to run the table the rest of the way to have a shot at one. Failing that, Utah State’s only way forward will likely be through the Mountain West Tournament.

They will have plenty of competition there, though, with San Diego State having already all but locked up their ticket to the Big Dance. No other team in the league can make such a claim, so the stakes will be enormous at the Thomas & Mack Center in March.

Let’s hope that all of those games can be exciting as this one was.

UP NEXT

Boise State: The Broncos will have something of a light week compared to their recent forays against SDSU, Air Force, and Utah State. On Saturday, Boise State heads south to face Fresno State (6-12, 2-5 MW), who has struggled to the tune of a 2-5 start in league play. The Bulldogs have weapons, though. Leon Rice would do well to remind his team not to rest on their laurels, especially with no midweek game to keep them sharp.

Utah State: The Aggies will look to right the ship at home against Air Force (9-10, 3-4 MW). Remember: this team beat the Aggies by 19 points just two weeks ago. The Falcons’ offense has been impressive behind the play of Ryan Swan and Lavelle Scottie, but Dave Pilipovich has yet to field a consistent winner on the year. Utah State will also host San Jose State (6-13, 2-5 MW) next Saturday.

It’s not a stretch to say that these are must-win games for Utah State if they are to have any hope at getting into the NCAA Tournament through the front door.

Andrew is a current USBWA member, covering college basketball for multiple outlets, including Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Busting Brackets of the FanSided Network. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a college basketball analytics system, and provides bracketology predictions throughout the season.

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