LAS VEGAS- It’s been a long time coming for the Rams, but now it’s time to dance.
For the first time in 13 years, the CSU men’s basketball team earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament after defeating UNLV 62-61 in Saturday’s Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game.
With four seconds to go in the game and the Rams trailing by one, forward Brian Greene pulled up just outside the lane and knocked down the game-winning shot. Marcus Banks’ last-second half-court heave was off the mark and the Rams stormed the court to celebrate.
“This is a dream come true,” said Greene, who scored a game-high 22 points and was named to the All-Tournament team. “I worked for this my whole career and to get here in my senior year, that’s great. I don’t know how far we will get, but I can promise that we’ll play our hearts out.”
The journey to see just how far the Rams can go begins Thursday night in Salt Lake City against the nation’s No. 12 team, Duke. CSU earned the No. 14 seed in the West bracket, while Duke is the No. 3 seed. Arizona is the top seed in the bracket, with Kansas second, and Illinois is the No. 4 seed.
Against UNLV on Saturday, the Rams got the ball on their final possession by virtue of Matt Williams’ block of Banks’ layup attempt. After his block, the ball was headed out of bounds, but Williams dove and tapped the ball to Derrick Stevens in bounds to give the Rams their last shot.
“When you get to the final game, anything can happen,” Rams’ head coach Dale Layer said. “I thought it was a terrific, gutty performance. We kept hanging around and I thought the longer we hung around, we might get a chance.”
Greene’s last-second heroics would not have been possible without the performance of center Matt Nelson. The sophomore had 17 points and was carrying the Rams on his back before he was forced out of the game with 13 minutes left. He was poked in the eye during a scramble for a loose ball.
“Not only is Matt Nelson the best third-team all-conference player, but he’s the best cripple that’s ever played,” Layer said of his center who outplayed the MWC’s first- and second-team centers earlier in the tournament despite not having practiced in months due to knee and ankle injuries.
The laceration of his left eye kept the 7-footer out for the rest of the game, but Nelson was named the Tournament MVP and broke the MWC Tournament scoring record with 70 points in three games.
“No one thought we could do this,” said Nelson, who watched all but the final play from the training room. “I think Jake Edwards stuck his whole hand in my eye so it was real blurry and I couldn’t really open it, but I was watching back there and keeping track of the game.”
Although the Rebels ran to a 10-point lead in the second half at 58-48, the Rams allowed them only three points over the final eight minutes of the game, and held them scoreless in the last four minutes. Greene and fellow senior Andy Birley, along with freshman Shelton Johnson, all hit clutch shots down the stretch as the Rams outscored UNLV 14-3 to finish the game.
“I think we could have sustained things a little better on the offensive end, if we got better looks we would have been okay,” UNLV head coach Charlie Spoonhour said. “We could have got a better shot in the end, but that’s just the way things go. It’s very difficult for these guys right now because they played their heart out.”
The win over the Rebels ended a stretch of three improbable victories for CSU in the tournament. The Rams defeated Wyoming 74-71 in the first round, and knocked off Brigham Young 86-80 in overtime to advance to the championship. The Rams were a combined 0-6 during the regular season against the three teams they defeated in the tournament.
“These guys could have shut down three or four weeks ago,” Layer said, referring to the Rams’ seven-game slide late in the season. “There were a lot of people who didn’t believe in us, and lesser-character people would have cashed in. But these guys didn’t.”
The Rams’ victory marked the first time a No. 6 seed won the MWC Tournament and it is also the first time CSU has won a conference tournament in either the old Western Athletic Conference or the Mountain West.