With the game and quite possibly the season slipping away, Boise State basketball coach Greg Graham decided to put his best player on the floor.
Good move, coach.
Guard Coby Karl, benched earlier in the game for poor play and miserable turnovers, salvaged his night, the game and maybe even the Broncos' season with a virtuoso performance in the final two minutes.
In the final 2:07 of the the 68-65 victory against San Jose State on Thursday night, Karl scored his team's final nine points, had a key steal, a pivotal rebound and blocked the Spartans' final 3-point attempt to prevent overtime.
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It's not much of a stretch to say he single-handedly lifted the Boise State from near-defeat.
Better still for the Broncos, Thursday night might have been the beginning of a new Karl Era at Boise State. The 6-foot-4 junior did what great players do — deliver with the game on the line, no matter how poorly they've played until that point.
Karl played so badly that Graham benched him despite the fact that Karl leads the team in points, rebounds and assists.
And no one really blamed Graham for sitting Karl down.
"He had every right to be disgruntled," Karl said. "He sent a message when he took me out at the four-minute mark."
It would have been hard for Graham not to sit Karl down after six god-awful turnovers. Witness the ill-fated behind-the-back pass he attempted to a wide-open Eric Lane. It resulted in a backcourt violation, one of the Broncos' season-high 23 turnovers.
Karl's final turnover came with 5:22 left and led to a San Jose State transition basket that knotted the game at 57-57. Soon after, Karl took his seat on the bench, just a few rows from where his dad, NBA coach George Karl, was sitting.
But as bad as Karl was on the floor, the Broncos were even worse when their leader was off it. By the time Karl re-entered, with 2:30 remaining, the Broncos trailed 63-59 and all looked lost.
"As you watch us down those last couple of minutes, we had trouble getting organized. He was off, but he understands the plays that need to be made and getting to the basket," Graham said of his decision to put Karl back in the game. "The other guys feel more confident with him on the floor."
Karl wasted little time asserting himself. He drove to the basket, scored and was fouled. His free throw made it 63-62 SJSU. On the Broncos' next offensive possession, Karl drew a foul and knocked down both shots, giving BSU a 64-63 lead. After a San Jose State basket and a missed shot by Karl, he stole a ball, was fouled and knocked down both free throws, giving BSU a 66-65 lead.
On the next possession, he corralled a rebound and then sank two more free throws. He finished the night 11-of-11 from the free-throw line and filled out his stat line nicely — 20 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks, including one on the final play of the game when Karl tipped Carl Spencer's 3-point attempt. It fell harmlessly short.
"That's what good players do. They take charge and learn and get better," Graham said. "They persevere and that's a tough thing."
Correction: That's what great players do.
Good players bounce back the next night. They light up the next opponent.
Great players do it the same night. They make you forget about their struggles and remember the end. Remember only that they came through and delivered.
Karl isn't a great player — not yet anyway. He turns the ball over way too much for a point guard and hasn't yet learned to dominate over a full 40 minutes.
But Karl proved Thursday night that greatness is within his reach.