LAS VEGAS – There is just something about the Mountain West semifinals and injuries for Colorado State.
In 2013, it was Dorian Green. Last season, it was J.J. Avila.
This year, the Rams were without starting forward Emmanuel Omogbo, who injured his ankle in the quarterfinal win over Boise State, and was unable to play Friday in the semifinals against Fresno State.
The Rams gave the tournament’s No. 2 seeded Bulldogs a run for their money in an ugly affair, but came up short, falling 64-56.
“We just weren’t at full strength,” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said. “But, that’s no knock on Fresno. … They figured out a way to win.”
In addition to Omogbo’s absence, matters became even worse for CSU when Tiel Daniels picked up two quick fouls, and sat out for the final 17:43 of the first half. Daniels was held without a field goal attempt for the first time all season, and just the second time in 66 career starts at CSU.
“They have a lot of size that cycles in an out,” CSU senior Joe De Ciman said. “… We struggled as guards, starting with myself, to get Tiel the ball. He was working hard and getting into position, and we just didn’t throw it in.”
Daniels’ backup, Kimani Jackson, later sat out the entire second half after hurting his leg in the first.
Still, CSU came out swinging in the early going, taking an early 20-9 lead behind 10 quick points from Antwan Scott and back-to-back threes by Joe De Ciman. But, Scott would not score again in the game, and it was not long before FSU’s Karachi Edo took advantage of CSU’s depleted front court on the glass to cut into the lead.
After the hot start, the Rams went absolutely cold. Already outmanned, and playing for the third time in three days, the Rams appeared to run out of gas, and simply could not get the lid off of the basket.
“I think we, including myself, got to taking bad shots,” Scott said.
Despite an 0-for-13 field goal drought to end the first half, John Gillon managed to will himself to the line just enough to carry CSU into the break with a 33-32 lead.
“It was a slugfest,” De Ciman said. “We had a slugfest last night against Boise, and we knew it was going to be one tonight.”
The game was an ugly affair, with the two teams shooting a total of 58 free throws.
“Three of our best players (Daniels, Scott, De Ciman) were on the bench the first half because of fouls,” Eustachy said.
Julien Lewis, who didn’t have a field goal in the first half, got two quick buckets to open the second, causing Larry Eustachy to call a timeout just 49 seconds into the period. After the timeout, MW Player of the Year Marvelle Harris got right to the basket for a lay in, and Lewis followed it with a three to put the Bulldogs up 41-33. However, Lewis was forced to sit moments late after picking up his fourth personal foul.
Following turnovers on three consecutive possessions, the Rams found themselves trailing by double digits, 46-35. De Ciman fouled out for CSU with 6:58 left in the game.
The Rams refused to go away though, drawing enough fouls of their own to hang around, despite being unable to buy a basket. Two free throws by Gillon cut the score to 54-50 with 4:51 to play.
“In this game, and all season, my teammates fought their hearts out,” De Ciman said. “Didn’t shoot the ball well, but, you know, it was a one-possession game late, close too. And that’s just who our team is. … We had a lot of fun, we stayed together.”
Fred Richardson III, who got the start in place of Omogbo and scored a season-high 11 points, hit a three from the corner to cut it to 56-53 with 3:18 remaining.
But, the 17.2 percent percent clip the Rams shot in the second half, along with FSU’s advantage inside, was too much to overcome. CSU did not score a basket for a 12:49 stretch spanning from the first half into the second.
“We came out (of halftime) taking long threes,” Scott said. “They got fast breaks and got some easy buckets. As Coach said all year long, it’s inside-out, and we lived and died by the three early in the second half.”
Harris led the Bulldogs with 19 points, albeit on 23 shots. The refs let Edo be physical down low and on the board, and he took advantage, finishing with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Gillon went 10-for-10 from the line to lead CSU with 13 points, but struggled shooting the ball otherwise, connecting on just one of his 12 field goal attempts. De Ciman was one board shy of a double-double when he fouled out, finishing with 11 points and nine rebounds.
“They have nothing to be disappointed about, they represented this University well,” Eustachy said of his players. “… They’ve fought it off all year long, and they fought this game.”
The Bulldogs will face San Diego State in the Mountain West conference tournament final Saturday at 4 p.m. MT. The game will be televised on CBS.
Collegian Sports Editor Emmett McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @emccarthy22.