There was a collective stunned look from Boise State’s players as they exited the court at the Thomas &Mack Center on Saturday.
The Broncos had a 67-56 lead with 3:48 remaining and appeared on their way to finally winning in Las Vegas after five straight losses. But the Rebels were resilient. They got to the free-throw line and made enough of their attempts, and Deville Smith and Kevin Olekaibe were knocking down shots as Derrick Marks suddenly went cold.
Before they knew it, the final buzzer had sounded, the Broncos had fallen to UNLV 73-69 and a golden opportunity to stay close to the leaders in the Mountain West race had been squandered.
“We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch,” said Marks, who had a game-high 22 points but missed two free throws with 1:33 left that would have extended Boise State’s lead from 67-64. “My teammates trust me in that position and to miss two free throws, that’s unacceptable.”
Marks also missed a spin layup try with eight seconds remaining that would have tied the score after Olekaibe had drained a three-pointer to put the Rebels ahead 71-69 with 19.3 seconds left.
“I was trying to be aggressive,” Marks said. “I had made that shot earlier, so I was confident in that situation.”
Coach Leon Rice wasn’t going to make excuses, but the circumstances surrounding his team were quite different at the end than they had been during most of the first half, when the Broncos killed UNLV with dribble penetration and spread the floor effectively to lead 37-27 at halftime.
First, they were going to have to play without starting guard Jeff Elorriaga, who injured his back with 4:03 left in the first half and didn’t return. They also had to deal with foul trouble that shortened Rice’s rotation and also resulted in a lopsided number of trips to the foul line, where UNLV had a 32-11 edge in free throw attempts.
“They’re a good team,” Rice said of the Rebels, who leapfrogged the Broncos into fourth place in the Mountain West at 6-3 (15-7 overall), “but the foul trouble was obviously a factor for us in the second half. It restricted who we put on the floor and the way we played.”
Mikey Thompson, the Broncos’ sophomore guard from Canyon Springs High School, tried to pick up the slack in Elorriaga’s absence. He made a backdoor layup with 38 seconds remaining to give his team one final lead, 69-68, before Olekaibe’s three-pointer.
“It’s a tough one to lose,” said Thompson, who had nine points but also committed four turnovers. “The good news is we proved we could play with them. The bad news was all the fouls. It slowed the game down and gave them a chance to get back in it.”
Boise State (15-7, 5-4) survived an early second-half punch to the jaw by UNLV, as the Rebels used a 14-2 run to tie the score at 46 with 12:01 left. The Broncos answered, using an 11-0 run to take a 57-46 lead.
But the Rebels threw enough haymakers late, and the Broncos were unable to answer.
“It’s a game of runs,” Marks said. “We’re used to the game being fast like that and having things swing. We just didn’t do a good job executing at the end.”
The teams will meet again Feb. 22 in Boise, Idaho. Thompson said there’s a lot of basketball left to be played and it’s important to put Saturday behind them quickly.
“It’s going to be hard for us the next couple of days, but we’ll be OK,” he said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.