One by one, Nick Duncan hugged his Boise State teammates and coaches as the final seconds ticked down Monday night at the State Farm Center.
The senior forward’s career was ending as Illinois began to celebrate a 71-56 win in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. As has happened often during the 86 wins he’s been a part of, as Duncan went, so went the Broncos.
Duncan hit four 3-pointers as Boise State went to halftime with a one-point lead. He missed all five he took in the second half, while the rest of the team missed all nine of its attempts from long distance. A frigid shooting performance in the final 10 minutes sank the Broncos, but for the first half at least, the elated, ecstatic Duncan was on display one last time.
“That was vintage Nick, but yeah, you would’ve liked him to have about eight of them and run out of here,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said.
Twice before the NIT began, Boise State (20-12) failed to make at least one 3-pointer in a half. The Broncos did it twice in their two NIT games, as they missed their first 10 on Tuesday at Utah in a 73-68 win. They made 6-of-11 in the first half against the Illini (20-14).
“We just couldn’t find any offense down the stretch,” said Duncan, who finished No. 4 in school history with 250 made 3s. “... It’s just a shame we couldn’t finish the last 10 minutes off.”
Minus two starters in sophomore forward David Wacker (shoulder) and senior guard James Reid (concussion), the Broncos trailed by as much as eight points in the first half.
The Illini hit six straight field goals to take a 33-25 lead with 3:24 left in the opening half, but Duncan made 3-pointers on three straight possessions to give the Broncos a 34-33 lead at the break.
With 10 minutes left and holding onto a 50-49 lead, Boise State was on the receiving end of a monster dunk by Leron Black with 9:21 to play. That sparked an 8-0 run broken only by an Illinois rebound attempt that went awry, the tip-in falling into their own basket. Boise State made just three of its last 15 field goal attempts, scoring six points in the last 10:12, while Illinois made eight of its last 15 shots.
“I don’t think anything really went wrong. We had a lot of opportunities there, wide-open shots that guys we’ve counted on to make down the stretch ... that just didn’t fall,” junior guard Chandler Hutchison said. “It’s frustrating when that happens, because you get the looks we work (for).”
Hutchison, coming off a career-high 34 points, had a team-best 17 points and eight rebounds. Duncan finished with 12 points, freshman guard Alex Hobbs had 10 points off the bench and sophomore guard Paris Austin had nine. Hutchison (five), Hobbs (four) and Austin (four) combined for 13 of the Broncos’ 16 turnovers, which Illinois turned into 16 points.
The Broncos turned 10 Illini turnovers into just two points.
“It starts with a missed shot on the other end, have them running, and got us on our heels and attacked us well,” Rice said. “Bad offense ... that leads to tough transition defense.”
With Journey playing back home at Taco Bell Arena, and the phrase “Tough And Together” on the sleeves of their new pregame shooting shirts, the Broncos didn’t stop believing, but alas, the party’s over.
Illinois will travel to face Central Florida on Wednesday after the Knights knocked off No. 1 seed Illinois State. Guard Tracy Abrams led the Illini with 18 points on Monday.
“Our guys, really proud of the way they competed. The score wasn’t close at the end, but it was a battle for the first 32, 33 minutes,” Rice said. “... But they made some big shots and we weren’t able to answer.”
Three true freshmen logged 1,360 minutes this season, while the likes of Austin and Hutchison are expected to return in 2017-18. Hutchison said he isn’t ready to turn the page, wanting to celebrate what Duncan, Reid and outgoing walk-on Matt Grooms had done in their careers.
But Duncan, hoping to play professionally back home in Australia next season, did not mind looking ahead.
“This younger class that’s coming through, it’s going to be special,” Duncan said. “I’m going to be back home in Australia watching these guys play. I know the hard work we put in this season, that’s going to transfer over in the years to come.”
NEWS AND NOTES
Guard Justinian Jessup earned his 31st start, setting a BSU record for a freshman, topping the previous high of 30 (Steve Shepherd; 1993-94). He didn’t score in 20 minutes, going 0-for-4 from 3-point range. ... Duncan became the third player in school history to make a 3-pointer in 100 games, joining Anthony Drmic and Coby Karl. ... Senior guard Malcolm Hill had 13 points for Illinois, and in the process became the school’s No. 3 all-time leading scorer with 1,817 career points. ... Hutchison finished with 557 points and 250 rebounds, becoming the second player in school history (Reggie Larry; 2007-08) to have 500 points and 250 rebounds in a season. ... Hobbs scored in double figures in four of his last six games. ... BSU is 0-10 vs. current Big Ten teams. ... The Broncos have had five straight 20-win seasons.