CSU’s season of lows concludes after one game in MW Tournament

Luke Zahlmann

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LAS VEGAS – A controversy-laden season finalized itself for Colorado State in its opening matchup of the Mountain West Tournament as the Rams’ hard-fought battle ended in a 76-65 loss.

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The start of the contest for the lower-seeded Rams could not have been scripted better as they built a sizable lead with their defensive power. CSU held Utah State without a point for a 4:27 stretch following the first minute of the game and a lone field goal for a lengthier period of nearly 10 minutes.

An abundance of empty possessions early for the Aggies presented an opportunity for the underdog Rams to stretch the deficit, a chance they failed to capitalize on. The summit of the Rams’ lead during the run was 15 points, a margin that failed to escape shouting distance.

Struggles of their own on offense served as the catalyst for the lack of a substantial lead as the Rams failed to make a shot during a simultaneous cold streak with the Aggies. A reliance on contested jumpers sunk the hopes of pulling away early.

The hot start on defense gave way to the demons of regular seasons’ past for the Rams as the crowd of the Thomas and Mack Center saw their lead suddenly evaporate, leaving the two squads to jostle for the upper-hand for the latter portion of the opening half.

“They got in the paint, guards, everyone got in the paint, they made some tough shots,” sophomore center Nico Carvacho said. “We just try to pressure and sometimes they got by us.”

Consisting of back-to-back blows by the two conference foes, the duel of the first half concluded as the Rams headed to the locker room with thoughts of what could have been, holding a slim 35-33 lead. A 9-1 record during the year when leading at halftime served as a positive omen for coach Jase Herl’s squad.

“I thought we finished the half okay,” Herl said. “That last four minutes, wanting to go in with a lead or be right around there because in the past, that last three- or four-minute stretch of halves has kind of doomed us.”

The leader in the box score for the Rams halfway through the contest was usual culprit, junior guard Prentiss Nixon. The offensive stalwart accrued 11 points with five rebounds as well.

The clash continued out of the break as both teams refused to give ground, trading momentum swings for most of the opening minutes of the final half. Depth deficiencies reared their head against the Aggies as nine players from USU saw the floor, compared to just five seeing meaningful time for the Rams. A palpable difference in energy was the difference, leaving the Rams gasping.

“We wanted our best defensive team on the floor,” Herl said. “That’s what it came down to, we kind of got together and talked about what are the best guys we can put out there that are gonna execute our defensive gameplan.”

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Looking to break away from the gridlock, the Aggies held the Rams without a field goal for a span of four minutes beginning at the 8:26 mark in the half. The lack of scoring was further emphasized in the Rams’ inability to muster a fast break force, scoring only a pair of points on 15 forced turnovers.

The Rams also failed to facilitate, totaling a single assist between their duo in the starting backcourt that came from Antony Bonner.

Without reaching rout territory, the Aggies handled the Rams with little resistance in the closing minutes stemming from the previously mentioned dry spell. A 39 percent mark from the field served as the dagger in the Rams’ chances, with a fellow thorn in the side being a 50 percent mark from the charity stripe.

“I think we competed for 40 minutes today,” Nixon said. “That was the emphasize coach Jase put in today was to compete for 40 minutes with heart and I think that’s exactly what we did.”

The conclusion of the Rams’ season saw the team last a single game in the conference tournament, only a year after reaching the final game of the tournament. The coaching search for the Rams will now increase its head of steam as athletic director Joe Parker looks to reverse the current course of the program.

Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.