There were 16 seconds left in the Boise State men’s basketball team’s thriller Saturday night against San Diego State when the momentum coach Leon Rice has built hit its crescendo.
After a baffling no-call at Boise State’s end of the court and a foul call at San Diego State’s end, freshman Jalen McDaniels went to the free-throw line trying to erase the Aztecs’ 81-79 deficit. The Broncos’ only defense was the raucous sound coming from the first sellout crowd at Taco Bell Arena in three years.
“My ears were ringing,” Boise State senior Chandler Hutchison said.
McDaniels missed the first free throw and made the second as the Broncos held on for the 83-80 win.
“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard it here,” said Rice, who is in his eighth season, “and who knows, maybe it affected the free-throw shooter, so thank you Bronco Nation. When you have an atmosphere like that, it lifts your team up, there’s no doubt about it. It makes it so hard for the opponent.”
The Broncos improved to 15-3 for the first time since 1987-88 — 30 years ago. The crowd of 10,874 raised the total attendance for the first three Mountain West home games to 25,969, also the most in 30 years.
And in the program’s 50th season, Hutchison scored a school-record 44 points — the first 40-point performance by a Bronco in nearly 39 years.
Rice, who earlier in the day waded across the frigid Boise River to follow through on his promise if fans bought every ticket for a home game, experienced a moment of emotion as he walked onto the court before the game. He joked that he thought he was running late when he saw the traffic in the parking lot 90 minutes before tip. There was enough interest that the school even sold 150 limited-view seats.
“You take over a program and you have a vision for it,” Rice said. “And that vision was like tonight.”
For his first game as the Broncos’ coach in 2010-11, Rice found a crowd of 2,447. For his first conference game, there were 4,084 people in the stands. For four WAC games that year, fewer than 3,500 fans showed up.
“The first time I walked out for a game, I was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ” he said.
Boise State basketball had become an afterthought for many. The last time the Broncos drew 7,500 fans for each of their first three conference games, like this year, was 2000-01 — the last season in the Big West.
In the 10-year WAC era that followed, the Broncos drew 10,000 fans at Taco Bell Arena just four times — and two of those games were against in-state rival Idaho.
“The fans disappeared, no question,” Rice said. “That’s why I got the job.”
He’s brought them back with a winning program, several of the best players in school history — Hutchison, Derrick Marks, Anthony Drmic and James Webb — and a style of play that is fun to watch.
The Broncos, in fact, are the only team in the highly competitive Mountain West to finish in the top three in the standings each of the past three seasons. That should stretch to four seasons with this team already 5-1 in conference play and positioned to challenge defending champion Nevada, beginning Saturday in Reno. The rematch is at 9 p.m. Feb. 14 in Boise — a tough time and date for what could be one of the best showdowns Taco Bell Arena has ever staged.
The Broncos are 10-0 at home this season going into Wednesday’s game vs. Utah State (7 p.m.).
Hutchison says this team is a culmination of all that Rice has built: an unselfish roster of guys who accept their roles and excel within them, an unrelenting coaching staff and a program that brings its competitive fire to the practice court in a quest to get better.
“That’s when you get things that are special, that have never been seen before,” Hutchison said.
On Saturday night, Rice watched the product on the floor and the passion in the stands mesh in a way it rarely has at Boise State. His feeling: pride.
“That’s what I wanted to put out there for the fans here, is a program that they can be proud of, because I see it on the Blue,” he said, referencing the Broncos’ outstanding football program. “That’s what was built here on the Blue and that’s what attracted me to this job, because you felt like you could build something like that.”
The Broncos never will dominate the Mountain West in basketball. The conference is too deep for that. But Rice figures they can do what they’ve done the past three-plus seasons: contend annually.
“We didn’t win it last year, but we were in contention for a long time, which set up a big game against Nevada,” he said. “They were just a lot better than us. … You want the consistency.”
This certainly looks like an NCAA Tournament team, whether or not the Broncos are able to dethrone the Wolf Pack. Just like Hutchison certainly looks like he’ll deliver on all that chatter about him playing in the NBA.
There are six chances left to see these Broncos play in Boise. Don’t wait for another wacky Rice challenge to see them play.
“I did tell (the players), my shenanigans aren’t what gets people here,” Rice said. “It draws attention to them, but it’s not what gets people here. It’s all about what they’ve done.”