Leon Rice doesn’t get excited about moral victories, but he had reason to be proud of his Boise State men’s basketball team on Wednesday.
Playing without their leading scorer and with several other players hobbled, the Broncos had a chance to tie the game at the buzzer in a 73-70 loss to Illinois State in the fifth-place game of the Cayman Islands Classic in George Town, Grand Cayman.
“We were dealt some tough cards. It’s one thing to be shorthanded on just a one-game situation. ... It’s tough on the third day of a tournament where these guys are giving their all,” Rice said in a postgame phone interview.
“... The thing that I’m most encouraged about was how tough we were. Our guys were dead tired in a heated battle, and they just kept battling and put themselves in a position to have a chance at the end.”
Junior RJ Williams, the Broncos’ leading scorer (17.5 points per game) and rebounder (7.3), missed Wednesday’s matchup with a left shoulder injury he sustained in a win over St. Bonaventure on Tuesday. He was still chosen for the all-tournament team.
“He wanted to play so badly, but he couldn’t even lift his arm up,” Rice said.
Rice did not know the extent of Williams’ injury or how long it would sideline the 6-foot-7 guard from Los Angeles. Rice did say Williams’ injury was most likely to the soft tissue and not the joint.
In addition to Williams, Rice said Zach Haney has an injured back, Cam Christon a broken nose, and Alex Hobbs an ankle injury. Hobbs didn’t play against St. Bonaventure and only logged five minutes against the Redbirds.
Another strong shooting night kept the Broncos in contention against Illinois State. Boise State shot 58.3 percent from the floor in the first half and took as much as a 10-point lead in the early going.
But without the athletic, lengthy Williams on defense, the Redbirds’ Milik Yarbrough imposed his will on the Broncos, totaling a game-leading 28 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
“He’s probably the best player in their league, no doubt about it,” Rice said. “... He’s a tough matchup, too, like RJ in the fact that he’s in between sizes. I would have just loved to see those two go at it. That would have been great.”
Junior point guard Pat Dembley provided the Broncos with a spark at the end of each half. Dembley scored five points in the final minute of the first half to cut the deficit to 36-35. He then made two 3-pointers and a pair of free throws in the closing minutes of the game to give the Broncos a chance.
Dembley was the Broncos’ high scorer with a career-high 17 points, and Justinian Jessup (13) and Derrick Alston (11) also reached double figures. Redshirt junior Malek Harwell contributed valuable minutes off the bench, adding a career-best seven points.
With the loss, Boise State falls to 2-3 overall going into Tuesday’s game at Drake. It is the slowest start for the Broncos since they went 2-3 in the first give games of the 2006-07 season under Greg Graham.
“They showed me some toughness and some grit. You have to deal with the circumstances that you were dealt, and I thought we did it about as good as you can,” Rice said. “I’m not into moral victories or anything, but we were right there. ... With this team I knew there was going to be a lot of growing pains, and I’d rather have them right now, then let’s see where this team is going to end up.
“I can’t wait to see this team in a couple months.”
ILLINOIS ST. 73, BOISE ST. 70
ILLINOIS STATE (4-2)
Yarbrough, Milik 10-18 8-12 28; Jefferson, Josh 4-11 1-2 12; Fayne, Phil 5-10 0-0 10; Evans, Keyshawn 3-7 0-1 8; Tinsley, William 2-6 0-0 6; Copeland, Zach 2-5 0-0 5; Idowu, Rey 2-4 0-0 4; Chastain, Matt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-61 9-15 73.
BOISE STATE (2-3)
DEMBLEY, Pat 6-14 2-2 17; JESSUP, Justinian 5-11 1-1 13; ALSTON, Derrick 5-10 0-0 11; HANEY, Zach 4-7 1-2 9; DICKINSON, Marcus 3-7 2-2 9; HARWELL, Malek 2-3 3-4 7; WACKER, David 1-2 2-2 4; HOBBS, Alex 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-54 11-13 70.
Illinois St............ 36 37 — 73
Boise St.............. 35 35 — 70
3-point goals — Illinois State 8-20 (Jefferson, Josh 3-8; Tinsley, William 2-4; Evans, Keyshawn 2-6; Copeland, Zach 1-1; Yarbrough, Milik 0-1), Boise State 7-24 (DEMBLEY, Pat 3-8; JESSUP, Justinian 2-6; ALSTON, Derrick 1-4; DICKINSON, Marcus 1-4; HARWELL, Malek 0-1; HANEY, Zach 0-1). Fouled out — None. Rebounds — Illinois State 31 (Yarbrough, Milik 8), Boise State 36 (JESSUP, Justinian 7; ALSTON, Derrick 7). Assists — Illinois State 15 (Yarbrough, Milik 6), Boise State 15 (DEMBLEY, Pat 5; JESSUP, Justinian 5). Total fouls — Illinois State 14, Boise State 17. Technical fouls — None. A — 525.