LAS VEGAS- When it was announced that the Colorado State men’s basketball team would be losing three players to academic ineligibility in early January, most people wrote off the Rams with three months remaining in the season.
A division one basketball team winning the conference with only seven players sounded more like the plot to a cheesy Disney basketball movie than a realistic goal, but after winning 12-of-14 contests and making it all the way to the Mountain West Tournament final, the Rams had the opportunity to do just that.
“It means a lot to us, coach (Eustachy) and the community,” Prentiss Nixon said, referring to how the team has performed under tough circumstances. “We go out every day and compete, no matter how many guys we have on the roster that are active to play. This team had the most heart that I’ve ever seen, as a team I’ve ever been on, the most heart. It won’t stop. It won’t quit ever.”
After throttling Air Force Thursday night and erasing a 13 point deficit to beat San Diego State late Friday night/early Saturday morning, the Rams had less than 24 hours to prepare for the conference’s top-seed, the Nevada Wolfpack.
“We just played with a lot of heart every game,” Mountain West Player of the Year Gian Clavell said of his team’s performance this week. “We don’t want to lose. We want to do whatever it takes to win.”
Unfortunately for Larry Eustachy’s Rams, the sand in their hourglass ran a little too thin this weekend, as CSU would ultimately lose the Mountain West Tournament championship game 79-71 to the conference’s regular season champions.
Playing in front of a national TV audience, CSU came out of the gate and struggled to score initially, as the Wolfpack jumped out to an early double-digit lead that stretched as far as 16 points. Led by senior guard Marcus Marshall and sophomore forward Jordan Caroline, who totalled 21 and 23 points respectively, Nevada appeared to be running away with the title without much fight from the Rams.
Then, just like this this team has done throughout the season, CSU came storming back; starting with a J.D. Paige 3-pointer at the end of the first half and continuing with a 6-0 run by the Rams to open the second. By midway through the second half, CSU came all the way back to tie the game at 51.
“I’m most proud of our guys,” head coach Larry Eustachy said of his team. “They battled. They never gave up. They fought through a lot of adversity that was happening out on that court. They were perfect, perfect professionals out there. I thought they handled themselves extremely well.”
Ultimately the game came down to free throw shooting. Nevada attempted 34 free throws in the second half alone, making 26 of them. CSU took just 11 free throw attempts in the game and missed five of them.
Two of the Nevada free throws resulted from a second half technical foul on Eustachy, his first of the season. After the game he explained his confusion with the technical foul, but praised his team for responding.
“I called a timeout — legally you can step out on the court and talk to your team during the timeout, and a guy from half court called me for a T,” Eustachy said. “It was very frustrating for these guys and the coaches. But I thought all of us did a great job of handling it and playing through the issues of the discrepancy and still getting it into a basket. Most teams would have lost by 30 points. But these guys just played through.”
Clavell (30) and Nixon (23) led the Rams in scoring, combining for 53 of CSU’s 71 points. For their efforts, each of the guards were named to the Mountain West All-Tournament team, along with a trio of Nevada players.
The complete All-Tournament Team is: Gian Clavell (27 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Prentiss Nixon (18 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Cameron Oliver (16.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Marcus Marshall (21 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Tournament MVP Jordan Caroline of Nevada (18.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg).
No. 1 Nevada is the first school in Mountain West history to beat the No. 2 seed in the Mountain West Tournament championship game. Prior to today, two-seeds were 7-0 against the top-seed in conference tournament title games.
The Wolfpack is only the third team to win both the regular season title and conference tournament in conference history and the first in the last four years (New Mexico, 2013). With the win, Nevada will receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The 64 team field will be announced Sunday evening.
After losing to Nevada, CSU is expected to accept an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). “I think this team wants to play, so we’ll see what happens,” Eustachy said. “But it’s a team I’ll always remember. You don’t have a net to cut down or what have you, but you have memories that you won’t ever forget.”
Collegian sports reporter Justin Michael can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JustinTMichael.