Pope: Colorado State goes out kicking and screaming in Mountain West semifinals

Keegan Pope

LAS VEGAS — Colorado State shouldn’t have still been playing Friday night, at least that’s what everyone thought. 

The sixth-seeded Rams, who came into this week’s Mountain West tournament as little more than a footnote in the expected results, returned to the semifinals for the fourth time in five years, a feat only accomplished by three-time defending regular season champions San Diego State. 

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Colorado State players Joe De Ciman, left, and Prentiss Nixon, right, bury their heads during the final minutes of the Rams' loss to Fresno State Friday. (NCAA Photos)
Colorado State players Joe De Ciman, left, and Prentiss Nixon, right, bury their heads during the final minutes of the Rams’ loss to Fresno State Friday. (NCAA Photos)

CSU wasn’t supposed to beat No. 3 seed Boise State Thursday night, and Emmanuel Omogbo missed Friday’s game with an ankle injury he suffered in the Boise State game, the Rams weren’t expected to put up much of a fight against Fresno State, who came into this week as the hottest team in the league. 

But CSU did all of those things, knocking off the heavily-favored Broncos before giving the Bulldogs everything they could handle and more, just running out of gas in the final five minutes. Shots that CSU had made all season didn’t fall, with the Rams going nearly 13 minutes over the span of two halves without a made field goal, yet the Rams held a 33-32 lead at halftime. 

Yet this week was just a microcosm of Colorado State’s season, with adversity seeming to hit them early and often. The season-ending injury to star guard Gian Clavell. The tragedy of Emmanuel Omogbo’s parents and niece and nephew dying in a Maryland house fire. Two separate three-game losing streaks. A portion of the fan base calling for the coach’s head. 

Those were the things that could have defined CSU’s season. Like two years ago, the Rams very easily could have closed up shop and went home in the first round of the Mountain West tournament, but they didn’t. They stayed and they fought, and they were three or four made baskets from reaching the conference title game for the first time since 2003. 

That’s what should, and will define this group, a bit of ragtag bunch, but nonetheless a group of scrappers and fighters. 

No player exemplified that more than Antwan Scott, who came into this season as a high-volume shooter with a low-volume interest in playing defense. When Clavell went down though, Scott flourished not only offensively, but in other aspects of his game as well. He improved his defense, he facilitated the offense, and he went down swinging every single night, even if that meant launching contested 3-pointers that nobody in the gym thought would fall, only to see them splash through the net. 

Following the loss to Fresno State, Scott sat with his head in his hands, fighting back tears at the thought of this being his final game. As he departed the stage, he embraced Eustachy, a coach that had chewed his behind more times than just about anyone on that CSU team. It was a subtle moment between player and coach, but with all this team had been through, it seemed a fitting way to end things for a hard-headed coach and a stubborn player who managed each to learn something from each other in their time together. 

Now, Colorado State’s four-man senior class — Scott, Tiel Daniels, Joe De Ciman and Fred Richardson III — awaits word of whether their team will participate in a postseason tournament or whether Friday night was the end of their collective college basketball careers. Each represents their own part of Colorado State basketball, traveling on journeys a million miles apart that eventually landed them in Fort Collins for anywhere between two and four years.

Regardless of whether they play another game in the green and gold, this group has left its mark at Colorado State — one of relentless fight and family. The goal for this program should be an NCAA Tournament, but don’t let that define this group. They are yet another group that left this place better than they found it. And as a fan or a coach, that’s just about all you can ask. 

“I think (our success) just adds to this program, the guy on the left, Joe (De Ciman) is the winningest player in the history of the school,” Eustachy said. “So we just continue to build the program that we think can be pretty special before it’s over.” 

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Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.