LAS VEGAS Boise State took its shot at the king, and barely missed.
Fighting against fatigue, foul trouble, the crowd and history, the Broncos' men's basketball team got within striking distance, but could not take down two-time defending Mountain West Tournament champion New Mexico on Friday.
Despite one key player ejected late in the game, and the Lobos with more than twice as many free-throw attempts, the Broncos were on the short end of a 70-67 decision in the tournament semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I'm just proud of the way my guys battled they let nothing get them down," Boise State coach Leon Rice said. "I think all of Boise has to be proud of these guys."
Boise State (21-13) had 26 fouls to 16 for New Mexico (26-6), including a technical on coach Leon Rice in the first half and a flagrant foul on Thomas Bropleh with 7:15 to play that resulted in his ejection. Bropleh came down hard on New Mexico's Cameron Bairstow as he was going for a shot under the basket. It was ruled a Flagrant 2, which meant an automatic ejection and could mean a suspension for the next game, but the Mountain West later determined no additional disciplinary action is warranted. Before Bropleh left the floor, he gave a quick hug to Bairstow.
"It was nothing like 'I don't like him, I'm trying to hurt him,'" Bropleh said. "I was just bracing my fall, unfortunately it looked bad. I wanted to let him know no hard feelings, none of that."
When he left, Bropleh was leading the Broncos with 16 points in 19 minutes, including a 3-pointer 25 seconds earlier that cut New Mexico's lead to 51-49. In the previous meeting between the two teams on Feb. 12 in Boise, Bropleh had 14 points, all in the second half, when Boise State erased a 10-point deficit with 15 minutes to play to beat New Mexico 71-70.
"I wasn't going to take him out the rest of the game," Rice said. "We were going to get him a lot more shots, too."
Instead of collapsing without a key player and with thousands of Lobo fans in the building, the Broncos rallied and got as close as one twice in the last 21 seconds, but the Lobos made a pair of free throws after each basket that cut it to one. New Mexico was 22-of-36 on free throws, and Boise State, playing its third game in as many days, was 11-of-17.
"When they make more free throws than we attempt, yeah, that's a big factor," Rice said. "They put a lot of foul pressure on you. They're good at that."
Derrick Marks led Boise State with 20 points. The Broncos trailed by as much as 10 in the first half, but tied it 46-46 on a Bropleh 3 with 10:30 to play. However, the Broncos never got a lead in the game.
"Just willpower, we knew it was win or go home, it was pretty much a road game," Boise State senior Jeff Elorriaga said. " we kept clawing."
Bropleh's foul wasn't the only one that turned the tide.
Down 23-16 with 4:24 left in the first half, Rice got his first technical foul of the season, and Williams missed both free throws. It sparked the Broncos to make an 11-4 run, ending on a Marks layup that made it 28-27 with two minutes left in the first half.
Boise State struggled out of the gate, missing 10 of its first 11 field goals, but settled down to cut the lead to one before New Mexico closed strong to take a 35-29 lead into the half.
"At the beginning, we were a little shocked, but when we calmed ourselves down and started playing the way we play, we got back into the game," Bropleh said.
Now Boise State will await its postseason fate an NIT bid is likely, though the CBI could be in play if the NIT does not select the Broncos. The NIT selection show is at 6:30 p.m. MT Sunday, televised on ESPNU.
"Our goal, we really wanted to make the (NCAA) tournament," Elorriaga said. "Whatever we play in, we'll be thankful."