LAS VEGAS – It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Not with Chandler Hutchison, Boise State’s probable first-round NBA draft pick, missing a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. Not with the Broncos’ falling in the quarterfinals for the third straight year. Not with high hopes of a trip to the NCAA Tournament now resulting in a likely NIT appearance.
But it did end like this Thursday night at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. It ended like it has in each of the previous two seasons, with the Broncos falling as the higher seed in heartbreaking fashion.
Second-seeded Boise State suffered a 78-75 upset loss to No. 7 seed Utah State on Thursday night as the Aggies made a crazy 14 of 25 shots from 3-point range (56 percent), including two big ones in the final minutes, to send the Broncos home early from Las Vegas yet again.
And given this team’s preseason expectations and potential, this one might hurt the most.
“It’s a tough one for this locker room,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I have a special group that wanted to keep playing and I thought we were going to do some great things down here. It’s a hard one to deal with.”
Part of it was Boise State’s defense.
Part of it was a career night from Sam Merrill, who had 28 points on 7 of 10 shooting from 3-point range. Regardless, the Broncos had no answer for Utah State’s outside shooting.
Lexus Williams had 24 points and did all he could for the Broncos, but a rare off night from Hutchison and the 3-point shooting from Utah State was too much to overcome. A team that many thought could win the tournament and get back to the Big Dance instead will await a bid to the NIT on Sunday night.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Williams said. “It’s frustrating. Credit to them. They weathered a lot of storms during the game and they just kept coming back and kept coming back. They didn’t lay down at all.
“This is still a special group. This isn’t our last game. I’m just trying to swallow this tough pill, but nothing about how special this group is (will change). It will always be that way.”
With arguably Boise State’s best three players graduating, the Broncos likely will take a step back next season. But this was supposed to be the year they did some damage and put their stamp on the program.
For weeks the Broncos have talked about this being a special group. But for the sixth time in eight years, the Broncos are done before the semifinals.
“I wanted it so bad for them,” Rice said. “They deserved it. They’ve done some great things and I told them in the locker room, it doesn’t change how I feel about this team. They are all heartbroken, we’re all heartbroken. We wanted to keep this thing rolling. … You wanted to go out with a big bang.”
Chris Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup each had 11 points for the Broncos.
Boise State led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but a barrage of 3-pointers from the Aggies including one from Merrill at the halftime buzzer to cut the Broncos’ lead to 40-32, kept them within striking distance.
Then in the second half when the Broncos went cold, the Aggies took advantage. Hutchison played just seven minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and missed several short shots in the second half while finishing with 14 points on just 4 of 13 shooting.
Hutchison missed the front end of a one-and-one with 57.3 seconds left, and then missed an open 3-pointer as time expired that would have sent the game into overtime.
It’s the second year in a row that Hutchison had one of his worst games of the season in the Mountain West Tournament. He had just eight points on 4 of 13 shooting in last year’s upset loss to San Diego State in the quarterfinals.
“Those are the shots he’s supposed to take, and a lot of those are shots he makes,” Williams said. “Tonight they just didn’t go down. They aren’t going to go down every night.”
Boise State led 66-60 with 7:20 left to play on a 3-pointer from Sengfelder, but Utah State responded with a pair of quick 3-pointers to even the score at 66 with 6:20 remaining. After a nasty dunk from Hutchison put the Broncos in front, the Aggies made four consecutive free throws to go up 70-68 with 4:00 left.
Jessup connected on a 3-pointer, and Hutchison followed with a layup to put the Broncos up 73-70, but Utah State’s Koby McEwen connected on a corner 3 to even the score at 73-73 with 1:35 to play.
“We just couldn’t shake them,” Rice said. “They hung with us, they hung with us...We just couldn’t break away from them. They did a terrific job of making some big shots down the stretch.”
Dwayne Brown made one of two free throws to put Utah State back in front at 74-73 with 57.3 seconds left. After Hutchison missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have given the Broncos the lead, Merrill connected on his seventh 3-pointer of the game to give Utah State a 77-73 lead.
Zach Haney scored on a put back with 24 seconds left to make it 77-75 before a crazy sequence in which the Broncos got the ball back after a forced turnover from Jessup on the inbounds. The Broncos then turned the ball over, but forced a jump ball to get it back.
Hutchison then missed a jumper with 11 seconds left and the Broncos were forced to foul. McEwen hit one of two free throws to give the Broncos a chance, but the open look from Hutchison rimmed off and the Broncos stood in disbelief as the Aggies stormed the floor in celebration.
“As a coach you ride them for 30-something games and he’s won a lot of those for you,” Rice said. “You feel like the team wanted to give him those chances and he was right there. A couple of them just rolled in and out.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump and there were a couple of crucial calls down the stretch that made a difference.”
Boise State’s season won’t end the way they wanted it to, but their season is not done. The Broncos will almost assuredly land a bid in the NIT on Sunday night. The Broncos could have been in contention to host a first-round game, but they likely will start on the road with Taco Bell Arena being used for the NCAA Tournament next week.
The Broncos are the only team to finish in the top three of the Mountain West standings in each of the past four years. All they have to show for it is one semifinal appearance, an overtime loss to Wyoming in 2015.
“You don’t measure a program by a three-day tournament,” Rice said. “You measure it by how it does in the league every year, because that’s over the course of three months.
“One game, anything can happen in college basketball, unless you’re by far the most talented team. And that’s not who we’ve been. We’re not by far the most talented team. We’ve got a bunch of tough kids that compete every night, that battle and they’re in every single game. We just didn’t win the last four minutes tonight.”