Thomas Bropleh stood hunched over, his hands tugging at his shorts, just outside the 3-point line. The Boise State senior was, like the season-best crowd of 9,602 at Taco Bell Arena, stunned, shocked, in disbelief.
It happened again.
Worse, almost everyone in the arena could see it coming and that included Boise State players and coaches.
Just days after squandering an 11-point lead in the final 3 minutes, 48 seconds at UNLV, the Broncos their slim NCAA Tournament hopes in desperate need of a signature win blew a 13-point second-half lead against No. 5 San Diego State on Wednesday night.
Bropleh banked in a 3-pointer with 13:51 to play, giving the Broncos a 57-43 lead. The gym was rocking. Boise State was rolling. And everyone was smiling.
Then came the same nightmarish qualities that have become Boise State's signature. Forget a signature win, this team's John Hancock is its inability to close.
Up 11 at UNLV and lost.
Up 7 with 8:52 left against Wyoming at home and lost.
Up 11 in the first half against Iowa State - and lost.
The Broncos' familiar free-flowing, motion offense, the same one that yields open 3-pointers and lanes to the basket earlier in the game, grinds to a halt. The ball sticks. The passes come slower. The offense goes stale, resulting in wild drives into the teeth of the defense late in the shot clock.
A team of good free throw shooters watches free throws go begging, the front ends of one-and-ones bouncing off the rim.
Mind-numbing turnovers, many in the backcourt, lead to easy jams for an opponent seemingly sucking the oxygen from the Broncos.
An open look for an opponent. Wednesday it was Dwayne Polee II, he of the 6.4 points per game scoring average, that delivered the dagger a 3-pointer over the out-stretched arm of Anthony Drmic. For UNLV, it was Kevin Olekaibe. For Wyoming, Larry Nance Jr.
This is now a trend.
"A disease," coach Leon Rice termed it after the loss.
The crowd felt it. Its raucous energy became a growing anxiety in the final minutes Wednesday night. As San Diego State crept closer, the tension became audible.
"I saw that look in our guys' eyes," Rice said.
It is the look of a team that may not believe in itself anymore. The look of a team that entered the year with such a clear expectation a berth in the NCAA Tournament and has watched it slip away, slowly but surely, with each shocking defeat.
It's why Bropleh, who played inspired ball early in the game, couldn't find the will to move after the final buzzer. It's why Drmic looked bewildered, as if nothing that just happened made any sense. It's why Derrick Marks, who missed all three field goal attempts in the final 33 seconds, hung his head throughout the post-game press conference.
"I could tell that it hurts everybody. This is supposed to hurt," Marks said. "All we can do is come back more hungry."
But can they come back? Or have these losses so scarred them such that no lead will feel safe, not even at home? Such that no opponent will ever feel out of it?
"We've got to cure ourselves of this disease," Rice said.
It may be too late already with Wednesday's collapse delivering the final, lethal dose of devastation to a team stunned, shocked and in disbelief.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444