BOISE — Playing at home for the first time in two weeks, the Boise State men's basketball team had that familiar swagger back.
The Broncos hope it sticks around for a while.
Emmanuel Akot had 16 points, Abu Kigab added 14 and Boise State shot 50 percent from the field to end a two-game losing streak with a 78-66 win against UNLV at ExtraMile Arena.
"We needed it bad,” Akot said. “We know we don’t have a lot of time so we know there has to be a sense of urgency to win the league and do all the things we wanted to do before the season started. We were really happy with tonight.”
Boise State (15-4, 11-3 MW) remains one game behind Utah State for first place in the league standings. After another game against UNLV on Saturday, the first-place Aggies come to town for two huge games in Boise next week.
The Broncos went 1-3 in four games away from home the past two weeks. They split with Colorado State before losing two over the weekend in Nevada.
But after shooting a season-low 34.6 percent last Sunday in the loss at Reno, Boise State bounced back in a big way Thursday — and in a game the Broncos really needed to win.
The win gave Boise State coach Leon Rice career win No. 213, tying him with Bobby Dye for most all-time in program history.
“That was a big one tonight – a big win tonight,” Rice said. “February wins in league are hard to get and you have to celebrate them and enjoy them and we have to respond quickly.”
Mladen Armus added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Broncos, who made 8 of 20 form 3-point range and committed just seven turnovers.
Boise State played in front of nine fans, the first time fans were allowed inside ExtraMile Arena this season. The Broncos allowed family members of the players and coaches to attend, and nine - including Rice's family - were able to make it on short notice.
It was Boise State's first home in nearly three weeks and the second in more than a month.
“It was good to be back home," Rice said. "Our guys love playing here."
On the nine fans, he joked, "I thought the crowd was terrific. It really helped us tonight.”
Multiple players hinted after the game that Boise State might soon be allowing a lot more fans into ExtraMile Arena. The Idaho State Board of Education ruled earlier Thursday that the four-year colleges in the state can have up to 40 percent capacity for the remainder of the season.
Current Central District Health rules for Ada County don't allow more than 50 fans, but many high schools in the area have surpassed that due to a similar ISBOE ruling for high school sports.
It's unclear what Boise State has planned. They previously tried to move games to the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa to escape the CDH mandates, but that was before Thursday's announcement from the State Board.
"It’s going to be great," Kigab said when asked about the potential for more fans. "It’s going to bring a different energy that we definitely need. I’m very excited for it. It’s going to be a lot of fun."
But back to Thursday's game first - and the continued emergence of Akot, who made 7 of 10 shots from the field to reach double figures for the third straight game. He had 19 and 13 points in the two games at Nevada before scoring 16 against UNLV Thursday.
The 6-foot-8 Arizona transfer checked into the game with 16:01 left in the first half and didn't sit until halftime. He was the only Bronco not to come out for a sub during that span, scoring a team-high 11 points and also adding two rebounds, an assist and a steal.
The Broncos trailed 19-13 with 11:29 left in the half thanks to five early 3-pointers from UNLV. But Akot slid over to the point guard spot when RayJ Dennis went out with 9:28 left and the Broncos trailing 19-16, and Boise State's offense immediately started clicking.
“He’s a good, physical, big defender, too," Rice said. "He’s hard to shoot over because he’s 6-8 so it give you a defensive presence and then he makes others better with his passing and then when he’s shooting like that and shooting confident, he’s a hard guy to guard.”
Akot fueled a 20-4 run with a steal and dunk and also had three consecutive midrange jumpers - including an impressive crossover dribble and pullup jumper from just inside the 3-point line to put the Broncos up 33-23 with 3:50 left before the half.
“I’ve played my point guard my whole life so I’m really comfortable playing the point,” Akot said. “It’s pretty good because there’s a lot of mismatches out there on the court.”
Boise State led 42-30 at the break and extended the lead in the second half. Kigab, RayJ Dennis and Devonaire Doutrive hit 3-pointers to give Boise State a 57-43 lead with 14:10 left.
Doutrive followed with a basket and ensuing free throw and Lukas Milner added a layup to give the Broncos their biggest lead to that point at 62-46. Milner got rare playing time Thursday but played well, scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds after not playing in any of the past four games.
Bryce Hamilton had 26 points for UNLV, including 24 in the second half. But the Broncos were well ahead by that point and cruised to a win they hope jumpstarts them for the final push.
“We just needed to get better honestly,” Kigab said. “We had a couple things that got exposed in the last couple games and we worked on them a lot. Our plan was just to get better and improve and I think we did a good job with that.
“We had a lot of motivation for tonight’s game. I felt like we didn’t play to our standard the past week and we just wanted to come out and prove to everybody that that’s not who we were. We have to continue to go out there and do that every single day and just get better.”
Boise State will host UNLV again on Saturday night. Tip off is 8 p.m. and the game will air nationally on FOX Sports 1.