They must have liked their chances. But the ball didn’t fall and Boise State (27-7) edged the Aztecs 53-52 in Las Vegas to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
That does not end SDSU’s season – their prospects to get into the tournament are good – but in dropping their third game to Boise State this season, the Aztecs (23-8), last year’s tournament champ, had to watch the Broncos, making their first appearance in the title game, take the crown.
Coach Brian Dutcher called his team’s final possession as good “as you’re going to get with the game on the line.”
A downcast Bradley agreed that he “got a great look.”
“I had it right at the rim and I missed,” he said.
The game, which also also pitted Leon Rice, named the conference Coach of the Year, against Dutcher, the two-time top MW skipper, was a defensive struggle for the most part, and the teams kept at each other’s heels throughout.
They played to a tie six times in the first half, which closed with Boise State up 28-25 following scoring droughts by both teams.
SDSU spread the ball around, with Bradley and Lamont Butler leading with five points each as the team put eight points on the board off 12 offensive rebounds.
Yet the Aztecs failed to score over the final 5:42 minutes of the half – including two Lukas Milner blocks of attempted layups by Nathan Mensah – which ended on an Adam Seiko miss from long distance.
The Broncos didn’t make a basket either in the final 6:02, when an Emmanuel Akot layup tied the game at 23. After a Bradley jumper put SDSU ahead, though, Boise State gained their advantage from the line – Abu Kigab made three of six free throws, while Marcus Shaver Jr. made one.
Akot lead both sides with 10 points on the half, including one of the four threes that accounted for 12 Bronco points. But he left with just under three minutes to go in the half with an apparent ankle injury.
After the break, though, Akot returned as the teams embarked on separate runs that gave them brief leads.
San Diego State opened on a Butler layup that sparked the Aztecs, who quickly went up 33-30. But Boise State’s Shaver immediately answered as the Broncos built a five-point lead on the strength of a 10-2 run.
The teams traded baskets for a while, and SDSU regained the lead on a Butler three, but it swung Boise State’s way again, and with just under five minutes on the clock, Mladen Arbus, after a foul by Mensah, completed a three-point play. That put the Broncos up by four.
The Aztecs kept pace with another Butler three-pointer and a Bradley jumper, and after Shaver saw a basket negated on an offensive foul, SDSU took a time out and drew up a play for Pulliam with 29 seconds left.
The ball though ended up in Bradley’s hands, and with eight seconds left his shot bounced off the rim. He managed to grab the rebound and get it to Pulliam, who tried to put up his signature floater with a second left. It didn’t go and the senior collapsed to the court in dismay as the Broncos began their celebration.
Now, the Aztecs await the NCAA Selection Show at 3 p.m. Sunday to hear their tournament fate, though most college basketball commentators think three to four MW teams will easily make it.
The event begins Thursday with play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday. The NCAA championship game is set for April 4.