BOISE — Boise State coach Leon Rice saw his team lose so many close games in the final minutes this season that he has a hard time remembering them all.

Forced to ponder what could have been, the Broncos saw their season come to an end on Sunday when they were not named to the 32-team NIT field.

Boise State declined to consider the CBI or CIT postseason tournaments due to several nagging injuries and finished a disappointing season with a 21-13 record.

“We have so many guys that are hurt and playing through injuries and battled and did everything they could in the Mountain West Tournament,” Rice told the Idaho Press-Tribune by phone on Sunday night. “I just didn’t think it was fair to them to try and push it through anything else.”

Expectations were high for the Broncos after being the only team that made last year’s NCAA Tournament to return all five starters this season. And they only got higher when Boise State got off to an 8-0 start and was one of the highest scoring teams in the nation.

But the Broncos stumbled in losses to Saint Mary’s and Kentucky and lost to Iowa State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. They lost nine conference games, but six of them came by four points or less.

“When you go back on it, there were all these close games that we could have got done,” Rice said. “Starting with Saint Mary’s and Iowa State and Wyoming and San Diego State, both games against them, Nevada, Air Force, the list goes on and on.

“It was just one of those deals where we had so many opportunities to get it done. We had a lot of great accomplishments. Twenty one wins is a pretty special year and back-to-back 20 win seasons, we feel good about that.”

Boise State won two games in last week’s Mountain West Tournament before falling 70-67 in the semifinals to eventual champion New Mexico. The Broncos overcame several factors, including foul trouble and a large pro-New Mexico crowd, to have the ball in their hands with a chance to tie the game in the final seconds.

But just as the case was all too many times in the regular season, the Broncos came up just a bit short.

“Our disappointment came from losing to New Mexico in the conference tournament,” Rice said. “Our guys were really disappointed and devastated. They gave it everything they had.”

Boise State earned the first at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament in school history a season ago before falling to La Salle in the first round in Dayton. They couldn’t make the return trip to the Big Dance that many expected them to, but they did finish with back-to-back 20-win seasons.

And despite not living up to the lofty preseason expectations, Rice said the program is moving in the right direction heading forward.

“We’re growing this program,” Rice said. “We feel like we’re growing it, and the thing I knew would happen was, when you’re building a program, it’s never going to be a straight line to the top. It’s always going to zigzag. We were pretty fortunate in some games last year and the ball bounced our way a couple more times.

“It’s such a fine line. You win one of those San Diego State games and you might even be in the NCAA Tournament, you just never know. I feel like we’re moving the program forward, we got competitive. We’re right there, and that showed in the Mountain West tournament. New Mexico wins the whole tournament and we were absolutely toe to toe with them.”

The end of the season means the finish line for seniors Ryan Watkins, Jeff Elorriaga and Thomas Bropleh, the first recruiting class signed by Rice at Boise State. Watkins finishes second in school history in rebounding while Elorriaga is third in 3-pointers.

Despite losing three key seniors, the Broncos return their two leading scorers in Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks and should have postseason hopes again next season. Contributors Mikey Thompson and Nick Duncan also return, and guard Dez Trent, who saw limited playing time as a freshman, is expected to be ready for an increased role.

It wasn’t the season the Broncos wanted, but they hope to use the disappointment as fuel going forward.

“They wanted to get back to the NCAA Tournament, so there’s things that are going to motivate us to keep getting better, no question,” Rice said. “We can make a lot of progress.”

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B.J Rains covers Boise State athletics for the Idaho Press-Tribune. He also makes daily appearances on ESPN Boise.

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