The Boise State women’s basketball team won a trophy it had never held Friday night in a place it rarely has won, then got on an airplane to return home.
Coach Gordy Presnell gave the Broncos one day to process that triumph and flush it. That’s all they could afford.
On Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas, the Broncos (20-9 overall, 14-4 MW) begin play in the Mountain West women’s basketball tournament. Three wins like last year, and they’ll return to the NCAA Tournament.
Anything less, and the regular-season championship they spent two months traveling the West to earn will be a consolation prize.
That’s the beauty — and madness — of March in college basketball.
“The league (title) means a lot to me,” said Presnell, who has won three regular-season and three tournament titles in 13 years at Boise State but only won both in the same year in 2007. “When you’re building your team, you hope you do well in the tournament, but (the regular season) is where the journey is.”
The Broncos men’s team (23-7, 13-5), meanwhile, will try to upgrade its second-place finish in the regular season for a championship in the tournament in which they’ve failed to reach the final in six previous appearances. Their opener is Thursday evening.
Like the women, it’s three wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament or something less and get left out of the Big Dance.
“I know we will flip the switch and get ready because it’s going to be a test of the things that we’ve been through,” senior guard Chandler Hutchison said. “Everything we’ve gone through, it’s shown us who we are and it’s made us a better team.”
Combined, the Broncos’ programs can claim the best season in the Mountain West.
The women won their trophy sparked by the exceptional shooting of Player of the Year candidate Riley Lupfer, who settled for All-Mountain West honors Monday. She’s making 46 percent of her 3-pointers, 47.5 percent of her shots from the field and 93.6 percent of her free throws — dominating to such a degree that opponents follow her to every square inch of the court.
“They’re not leaving her,” Presnell said. “... Her statistics are just off the charts. Men don’t have her statistics, even.”
The men ran their string of top-three finishes in the Mountain West to four straight years, the longest active streak. They’re led by Hutchison, a potential Player of the Year and projected first-round NBA Draft pick. Hutchison ranks second in the Mountain West in scoring (19.5 points per game), sixth in rebounding (7.6) and seventh in assists (3.5). Only three other players are in the top 10 in two of those categories.
Hutchison also is fifth in steals (1.4).
“He never padded his stats,” men’s coach Leon Rice said. “We played one game, he took three shots and we won by 30 – because he only took three shots, because they chose to guard him with five guys. He impacted the game in so many ways.”
But in a sport where little is remembered that happens before March, those special seasons won’t be complete without a three-game run in Las Vegas.
The women have won seven straight games, conjuring memories of the 10-game win streak that propelled the Broncos to the conference tournament title and an NCAA berth last year. They’ve overcome an exhibition loss to NAIA Carroll College, several squandered leads early in the season, two home losses in conference play and a couple key injuries.
Presnell contrasts walking off the court at Taco Bell Arena after the loss to Carroll on Nov. 5, shoulders slumped, thinking, “We just lost to Carroll College, and we still have 30 games to play,” with watching his players jump around Friday in Laramie, Wyo., after winning a showdown with Wyoming for the Mountain West trophy.
“What a big gap that is,” he said. “It’s a tribute to (the players). We have built some culture and tradition that we try to finish strong.”
Said senior Shay Shaw: “At the beginning, we were trying to figure out who we were and who we wanted to be.”
The men have faced those questions more at the end of the season, after looking like an NCAA team for the first three months. Losses to Utah State, Nevada and San Diego State destroyed the Broncos’ at-large hopes during a 3-3 finish.
They know they’ll get scoring and playmaking from Hutchison, toughness and versatility from Chris Sengfelder and leadership and clutch shooting from Lexus Williams. The question is what they’ll get from the rest of the roster — and the answer has varied from electrifying play to baffling struggles, sometimes from half to half.
“We need the balance to go compete at the highest level in this tournament,” Rice said.
The men and women could compete in the same building Friday, when the women’s final and men’s semifinals are played. That’s a rarity —particularly during conference play, when the two teams generally play mirrored schedules.
But there’s a connection between the programs. Rice and Presnell are friends who trade ideas, they share the same facilities and Hutchison said the men’s team took pride in seeing the women win their championship.
The next step, for both, is making Boise a basketball town.
The men averaged 6,747 fans per home game — their second-best attendance in the past 17 seasons — and went 15-1 at home. But that attendance ranked sixth among the 11 Mountain West programs.
The women averaged 789, which ranked eighth.
“Let’s keep committing more to it,” Rice said. “Let’s keep building it. We have to go in that direction. If we keep building it, who knows? The sky’s the limit. A big part of it is we’ve established Taco Bell Arena as a tough place to play. You can’t have a good basketball program if you don’t have that.”
A crowded trophy case helps, too. And the Broncos could be busy collecting hardware this week.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
Mountain West tournament schedules
At The Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
All times Mountain
Air Force vs. Utah State, 3 p.m.
Nevada vs. San Diego State, 5:30 p.m.
New Mexico vs. San Jose State, 8 p.m.
Boise State vs. Air Force-Utah State winner, 1 p.m.
Fresno State vs. Colorado State, 3:30 p.m.
UNLV vs. Nevada-San Diego State winner, 7 p.m.
Wyoming vs. New Mexico-San Jose State winner, 9:30 p.m.
Semifinals at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Championship game, 1 p.m.
UNLV vs. Air Force, noon
Utah State vs. Colorado State, 2:30 p.m.
Wyoming vs. San Jose State, 5 p.m.
Nevada vs. UNLV-Air Force winner, 1 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Fresno State vs. San Diego State, 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Boise State vs. Utah State-Colorado State winner, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
New Mexico vs. Wyoming-San Jose State winner, 9:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Semifinals at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Championship game, 4 p.m. (CBS)