DANCE FEVER!

Boise State has done the impossible, upsetting first the #1 seed and then the #3 seed on their home court in front of a very hostile crowd to capture their first WAC basketball championship. The Broncos are dancin' in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994.

Championship basketball has returned to Boise State.

The Broncos capped off an improbable tourney run with a heart-stopping, three-overtime win over hometown New Mexico State 107-102 to capture the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Championship tonight in Las Cruces. Boise State led nearly throughout the thriller, jumping out to a 17-3 lead and yet fighting the entire way to preserve that lead.

Now, Coach Greg Graham's team is going to the Big Dance for the first time since 1994 when they won the Big Sky Conference title and played Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The story of this team can be told in unselfish terms, like the way they not broke but shattered the school record for assists. Like the way they played when their star center, Matt  Nelson, went down with an injury. Or that despite losing first Nelson then sharpshooting forward Tyler Tiedeman to fouls tonight, they still found a way to win.

Make no mistake—that early start out of the gate was key in front of a hostile crowd of Aggie fans hoping for a repeat performance to the NCAA's. The Broncos would not have won without it. When Boise State last saw the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, they were outplayed from start to finish in a 19-point blowout loss. After that debacle, what made them think they could come back and actually defeat New Mexico State? And how did they pull it off?

It was not easy. Championships never are. A lot has to go right along the way to capture them. Courage. Tenacity. Poise. Athleticism. Endurance. Boise State displayed all of these attributes and more in their pressure-packed three-day adventure to their first WAC Tournament title. The first entry in their Las Cruces scrapbook was a come-from-behind victory over a scrappy Hawai'i team in the opening round. That set up a battle with #1 seed Utah State, another team that handed Boise State a devastating 19-point loss in Taco Bell Arena less than a week earlier. The Broncos passed that test with flying colors, handing the Logan Aggies a shocking loss that was just Boise State's first victory over USU in eight games. That set up the Championship Classic.

Reggie Larry, the brilliant transfer from junior college powerhouse College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, led the Broncos with 31 points and 16 rebounds. But this championship was won by T-E-A-M. They shot a lights out 58.3 percent from three-point territory in the second half. Matt Nelson, one of the nation's best shooters, had one of the best games of his career, countering the boisterous and needling Aggie crowd time and time again by scoring amongst the redwoods of the New Mexico State defense. Nelson finished with 26 points for Boise State. The sensational Tyler Tiedeman poured in 17, every one of which was needed and seemed to come at a time when the Aggies thought they were gaining control. Local star Matt Bauscher from Caldwell's Vallivue High School closed out a sensational tournament that included 9-of-11 three-point shooting with 14 points tonight. Anthony Thomas sliced and diced his way through the Aggie defense for 13 points. Freshman Paul Noonan was ice at the free-throw line with four swishes with the game on the line. Bauscher, Larry and Nelson were all named to the All-Tournament team. Coach Graham got key contributions from throughout his lineup.

Speaking of the WAC Coach of the Year, he brilliantly altered his defense between zone and man-to-man to confuse the talented New Mexico State team. The zone defense instituted early in the game not only kept the athletic Aggies from getting into a rhythm but just as importantly kept the sellout Pan American crowd from erupting. The tenacious Bronco "D" held the skilled Aggie shooters to less than 38 percent in the first half (11-29). New Mexico State would rally like the great team that they are and the fans would yell and stomp their approval. But they never could get over the hump, not grabbing their first lead until late in the game and certainly were not allowed to duplicate their romp over Boise State the last time the two teams matched up.

When Boise State switched periodically to a man-to-man defense, the Broncos played that nearly to perfection as well. It was perhaps the best defense played by a Bronco team since the glory years of the Bobby Dye era. Chris Childs, Arnell Jones, Wilson Foster, Doug Usitalo and company must be smiling. The tall, agile Aggie big men did not find the going easy inside. Nelson, Larry and Kurt Cunningham denied opportunities for entry passes. When they did get the ball inside, the alert Broncos double and triple teamed them, taking away any open lane to the basket. This was a sign of a well-coached team who brilliantly prepared for the style of New Mexico State.

``Guys stepped up for us,'' said Graham. ``They all kept us moving along.''

Despite the big early lead in a game that Boise State led nearly from start to finish, they couldn't shake the Aggies. Not in this classic roundball game. After a New Mexico State comeback that cut the early margin to five, Boise State closed out the first half in fashion that resulted in a 34-27 advantage going into the locker room. The two teams were tied at 71 before putting on an offensive clinic in the three overtimes. They were even at 80 in the first overtime and again at 92 in the second OT.

The Broncos looked like they would win the game at several points only to see the determined Aggies fight back. It would be either a clutch three-point shot or an offensive rebound put back for a three-point play or a basket after a Bronco turnover. The Aggies played with great intensity especially in the second half and yet with all that pressure and noise from the faithful, the Broncos did not wilt or lose their poise. They took tremendous care of the basketball in the midst of Aggie runs and played intelligently. 99 percent of the time they took good shots and they made them. They screened out the taller Aggie players who had outrebounded Nevada by 27 the night before and did the same thing to Boise State the last time the Broncos ventured to New Mexico. Graham's team in fact got several offensive putbacks themselves. It took all of this and more to withstand the Aggie onslaught.

``I never thought we were going to lose,'' Hawkins said. ``We never doubted it. Every time we tied it up and it was going into the next overtime, we thought, 'All right. Here we go.'''

Boise State finally built up enough cushion in the third overtime, with Larry scoring twice in a 6-0 run that would this time, finally, hold up. New Mexico State once again struck back to cut the lead to 99-97 and it looked like the game could go into a fourth extra period. Thomas countered with a sweet, slashing layup in and around the trees that he turned into a three-point play with a clutch free throw that advanced the lead to five with 42.6 seconds remaining.

``That was the one that hurt us,'' Aggies coach Marvin Menzies said. ``It gave them a window of opportunity to protect the clock.''

Seconds later, Thomas forced NMSU's Jonathan Gibson into a backcourt violation, and it was fiesta time back in Idaho.

Freshman Herb Pope led the Aggies (21-14) with 20 points, playing through foul trouble since picking up his third late in the first half. Justin Hawkins had 18 and Kansas State transfer Fred Peete scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half as New Mexico State erased a 16-point deficit. Peete was amazing as the Aggies stormed from behind. They outscored the Broncos 35-19 after Bauscher's 3-pointer gave Boise State their biggest lead of the night 52-36 with 13:47 remaining.

New Mexico State chipped away like a boxer in a championship fight, jabbing away continually and getting their crowd pumped up. They got big baskets from Pope, Hawkins, Peete and especially Gibson, who put New Mexico State ahead 71-70 with a huge 3-pointer with 24 seconds to play in regulation.

Shortly after an airball on a free throw, Larry tied it at 71, making one of two free throws to tie it with 16.8 seconds to play. Larry said he caught the ball with a thumb on the way up but agreed the noisy crowd was a contributor. ``You're hearing all kinds of things out there,'' he said. ``Your legs are shaking.''

Which made the victory all that much sweeter.

The Broncos won their championship and ticket to the Big Dance in front of passionate Aggie fans but cut down the nets in a largely vacant Pan American Center. Graham noted it was fitting that his team had won a school-record 12 road games and capped off their historic WAC season in this manner.

``All the odds were stacked against us,'' Nelson said. ``It's a tough environment, a tough team. But we pulled it off because we're family. We're tight.''

As the final horn sounded that ended this marathon, Bauscher heaved the ball into the rafters and several of his teammates jumped atop a courtside table to cheer with a contingent of fans in orange and blue.

``Here it is. Here it is,'' Larry said, proudly holding the WAC trophy high in the air. ``Going back to Boise.''

Larry was named Most Valuable Player, as he finished the three-day tournament with 79 points.

The third-seeded Aggies came into the tournament that they hosted on a tear, winning five straight and 10 of 11 to close out the regular season. They were hoping to repeat a title after winning the tournament on their home court to reach the NCAA's for the first time since 1999.

But the WAC, with a No. 20 national conference RPI, will likely only place one team in the Big Dance. That leaves New Mexico State, Nevada and Utah State to make plans for the NIT.

The selection committees for both tournaments will huddle one final time this afternoon before making their choices public. The traditional NCAA Selection Show will air at 3 this afternoon to announce the bids and pairings. Boise State will open up Taco Bell Arena for Bronco fans to enjoy this special moment in school history and learn what college basketball giant the committee will put in front of them. ESPN will no doubt have a film crew in town to capture the Boise party.

And Bronco fans certainly know how to Fiesta!

BroncoCountry salutes the Boise State Broncos on this very special occasion—their first Western Athletic Conference basketball championship. You Should Be Dancing. Yeah!


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