Don’t tell CSU it has nothing left to play for. The team refuses to listen.
It may have been the men’s basketball team’s last home game of the year, but the Rams are far from letting this season end.
Heading into Saturday night’s regular season finale against Brigham Young, essentially all the team could play for was the No. 7 seed, instead of No. 8, in this week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament. But that’s all the motivation the Rams needed, and they succeeded by upsetting the Cougars, 79-75 in overtime.
Though at first they didn’t appear poised to climb out of the MWC basement and they found themselves down by 14 points midway through the second half, the Rams didn’t stray from their season-long trend of keeping games close, even when they’re not supposed to win. Only this time, instead of just getting close enough to lose, CSU found a way to win.
In doing so, the Rams got out of last place in the league for the first time all season when word came that Air Force lost its season finale to San Diego State, 49-47. Both CSU and Air Force finish league play with 3-11 records, but considering the Rams swept the two-game regular season series between the teams, they get the higher seed in the tournament.
So now CSU gears up to face Utah, the No. 2 seed that lost to Wyoming 57-56 on Saturday, for the second time in a week. Last Thursday, Utah beat CSU 72-62 at Moby Arena. This Thursday, the teams will meet at the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
Despite being the No. 7 seed and playing a team that has garnered 20 wins this year, CSU likes its chances in the conference tourney. BYU is the only MWC team other than Air Force that the Rams have beaten this year, but that doesn’t stop them from thinking anything can happen in Vegas.
“We think we can win it,” junior forward Brian Greene said. “We know we can play with anyone in the league. We took league champion Wyoming into overtime, beat the No. 4 team (BYU) and played close with everyone else. We’re looking to the conference tournament and trying to get in the NCAA tournament.”
If anyone will lead them there, it will be Greene. The team’s leading scorer all season, he once again was one of CSU’s top scorers Saturday night. His 22 points tied him with teammate Andy Birley for game honors, and both found nearly all their scoring in the second half.
Greene’s four points at halftime had his streak of 24 consecutive double-digit scoring games in jeopardy, but down the stretch he was able to push that to 25. His layup with six seconds remaining in regulation sent the game to overtime, where he scored eight of the team’s 20 extra period points.
Birley was nearly identical as he had just three points at intermission but chipped in with seven in overtime. All six field goals Birley made were 3-pointers, and none was more crucial than the one he hit with 3:16 left in overtime. With the game tied at 62, Birley’s 3-pointer gave the Rams a lead it would never relinquish.
“This game was a tale of two halves,” CSU head coach Dale Layer said. “Our performance in the first half was less than inspirational. I was searching for answers in the first half. I substituted what must have been like 50 times and could never get the right guys playing or executing. It was our worst half since Christmas. But the second half we came out on fire – much more intense.”
And that’s exactly what CSU had to do unless it wanted to be the first victim for BYU on the road in conference. As the Cougars end the regular season at 17-10 overall and 7-7 in league, not a single league victory came away from Provo. They were 7-0 in conference at home, but why can’t they win on the road?
“I really can’t answer that,” said BYU center Jared Jensen, the Cougars’ leading scorer with 18 points. “Everything’s fine; we get enough sleep. I don’t think there’s really one reason.
There were three reasons BYU lost Saturday night: in addition to Birley and Greene dropping 22 points each, freshman center Matt Nelson added 20. n