Boise State Basketball

Boise State men are getting better, tougher — but they’re still falling a play short

A month ago, nobody would have given the Boise State men’s basketball team a chance against No. 10 Nevada. Even the Broncos realize that.

On Tuesday night at Taco Bell Arena, they had every chance to upset the Wolf Pack — and came up short.

That’s both a sign of the dramatic improvement the Broncos have made with the start of Mountain West play and the persistent flaw they can’t escape.

The 72-71 loss marked the fifth time this year that the Broncos have lost a game by three points or fewer — games that make the difference between a frustrating 8-9 and a much shinier record.

“If you look at a month ago, where we were as a basketball team, how far we’ve come, it’s crazy,” Boise State junior Justinian Jessup said.

The Broncos hit the reset button when the calendar flipped to 2019 and opened Mountain West play with three straight wins, including a surprise demolition of San Diego State. That gave them a chance to play the Wolf Pack (17-1, 4-1) with first place on the line.

But in the final minute, as was the case too often during the nonconference schedule, the Broncos were outplayed. They had three chances to score and got nothing. Nevada had one chance and buried a 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left for the win.

“They made the winning play,” said Boise State coach Leon Rice, whose team is 3-1 in Mountain West play. “... We’ve got to be able to make our winning plays, too. We’re close. We’re getting better and better every time out. That’s the best thing about this team. We’ll show up tomorrow to get better, because we have to.”

[Related: Nevada’s unlikely shot doomed Boise State]

The Broncos have progressed quickly since the Dec. 29 home loss to Oregon — just 17 days before the Nevada game. That day, Rice publicly challenged his team to improve its toughness.

And a tougher, grittier approach has been the key to the quick turnaround, Jessup and junior Alex Hobbs said. The Broncos played a sloppy first half against the Wolf Pack but fought back in the second half, and the Broncos still had a chance to win despite several crowd-quieting shots by the veteran Wolf Pack down the stretch.

“How much better we can get in the next 60 days, that’s the challenge now,” Rice said. “Like I always say about league, it’s just about responding, because we have a heck of a team coming in here Saturday.”

Boise State fans added some rumble to Taco Bell Arena as the Broncos challenged 10th ranked Nevada Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 at Taco Bell Arena in Boise. Darin Oswald

Fresno State (12-4, 3-1) is next up at Taco Bell Arena — likely the last time the Broncos will play a team with a winning record until their Feb. 2 trip to Nevada. If the Broncos can beat the Bulldogs and continue the improvement of recent weeks, they could create another meaningful encounter with the Wolf Pack.

Boise State will need exciting sophomore Derrick Alston to continue to develop (he has 65 points in four conference games), starting post Zach Haney to step up (he has nine field goals in the past five games), junior transfer RJ Williams to break out of his funk (25 points, 14 turnovers in past five games after an outstanding start) and someone to emerge as a game-on-the-line scorer.

The Broncos showed Tuesday that they’re more capable than their record has shown. But they’re still one play away too often — dropping to 0-5 in games decided by three points or fewer.

“Our guys went toe to toe with (Nevada), no question,” Rice said. “We couldn’t have done that a month ago. We weren’t there yet. But the biggest thing is I want to see how much better we can get.”