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Brian Murphy: In loss to Nevada, BSU finds a center

Lost amid all of the things that Boise State squandered Thursday night against Nevada — a 13-point second-half lead, a huge upset and the chance to gain some traction in the WAC race — was perhaps the Broncos' biggest find of the season.

In their 18th game of the season, the Broncos finally discovered a center.

Sure, 6-foot-9, 277-pound freshman Kurt Cunningham is raw. He's lumbering. He often calls for the ball when he's not truly open, and his vertical leap — well, he might have trouble getting over the Boise phone book.

But Cunningham showed enough skills in his career-high 23 minutes to warrant more consistent playing time — and give Bronco fans reason for optimism after a devastating 82-79 home loss to Nevada.

In his first extended playing time against a conference opponent, Cunningham proved he could log important minutes against a quality opponent.

It wasn't just the career-high 12 points that impressed. For a big guy, Cunningham has good hands and he handled several tough passes with ease. He showed a deft touch, making one medium-range jumper, and displayed a real knowledge of the game on both ends.

"I'm not always the fastest or the most athletic. I can't jump the highest," he said. "But I try to be in the right spot at the right time."

That was apparent Thursday. Even with four fouls, Cunningham took a key charge with 5 minutes, 47 seconds remaining. He sealed off the help defense on Coby Karl's driving layup that gave the Broncos a short-lived 77-75 edge.

"Maybe I should have gotten an assist," the outgoing freshman deadpanned.

There are other benefits to playing Cunningham, who has already developed a following among the BSU faithful.

With him at center, the Broncos' other frontline players — Tez Banks and Kareem Lloyd, in particular — can play the more natural power forward position. Seth Robinson and Tyler Tiedeman could filter to small forward — again more natural positions.

It gives coach Greg Graham flexibility in matchups and allows the Broncos to compete on the glass. Using a bigger lineup for much of the evening, Boise State outrebounded Nevada 36-21 and outscored the Wolf Pack 34-24 in the paint.

In the Broncos' 81-67 loss to Nevada on Jan. 14, in which Cunningham played 10 minutes, they were outrebounded 47-30.

Still Graham has been loath to play Cunningham against quicker teams, not wanting to expose him in a fast-paced game and shatter his confidence.

There's simply no time left for those kinds of baby steps. At 9-9 overall and 2-5 in the WAC, the Broncos need wins. Cunningham, for all his flaws, gives them their best chance.

"He showed maybe he deserves a little more time," Graham said after the game. "We're going to need him."

Which isn't to say Cunningham will solve all of the Broncos' problems. He will create more turnover issues — though it's hard to see how on a team already struggling to take care of the ball.

And he's still prone to mistakes, some caused by the speed of the game. Though he's dropped almost 20 pounds since arriving on campus, the Indiana native sometimes gets left behind in the Broncos' fast-paced style of play.

He threw a pass too hard in the final minutes that led to a turnover. And he fouled Nevada star Nick Fazekas on an important 3-point shot with 7:30 remaining.

"I made a dumb play," said Cunningham, who turned down interest from mid-major programs around the nation — Illinois-Chicago, Siena, Lipscomb, Cal Poly, William & Mary and several small schools in his home state of Indiana — to play at BSU.

He's a freshman, after all.

In Thursday's loss, Tiedeman pushed Cunningham into place as the Broncos set up an offensive set because he was lined up incorrectly. Two weeks ago, Graham tossed Cunningham out of practice for a lack of focus.

Such growing pains are inevitable.

But after Thursday night, the Broncos must resign themselves to letting him learn on the fly.

They can't let that lesson get lost as well.