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Here’s how Boise State pulled off the wildest comeback of the season

Utah State had an 18-point lead and a 99 percent chance of winning with 4:10 left. Then everything unraveled.

Utah State v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a team of destiny, look no further than Boise State.

Trailing the defending Mountain West tournament champions Utah State 66-48 with 4:10 to play, the Broncos were staring at a sub-.500 record in conference play on Saturday night. According to statistician Ken Pomeroy, the Broncos had a meager 0.2% win probability to pull off the upset, second to only Stephen F. Austin’s historic upset at No. 1 Duke earlier this season.

Boise State needed a miracle — or something close to it.

As college basketball fans either slept or watched the end of Gonzaga’s big win over BYU, the Broncos crept up on the Aggies, scored five points in the final four seconds, then prevailed in overtime to win 88-83. Along the way, Sam Merrill’s 30-point outing faded into the background, while Boise State freshman RayJ Dennis grew up before everyone’s eyes by setting a new career high with 19 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting, including five clutch free throws. Unbelievably, the Broncos did all this without their best players on the floor against the team unanimously picked to win the conference in the MWC’s preseason poll.

Like most comebacks, adjectives like crazy, unbelievable, frenzied or improbable immediately come to mind. But Boise State’s rally on Jan. 18 didn’t fit the mold, which makes the right words hard to find.

Crazy or frenzied doesn’t do it justice, as Boise State’s press wasn’t as hectic or desperate as one would imagine. Instead, the Broncos were poised. Led by senior forward RJ Williams, Boise State played clean, yet stifling defense without fouling the a team that made 75.9 percent of its free throws. Ditto for unbelievable, which fits neither the confident shooting of Dennis (a freshman), nor the way Boise State head coach Leon Rice managed his timeouts and lineups. Boise State carried itself like a team that had 13 minutes to come back — not three. Improbable is probably the best way to put it because the Broncos truly had no business winning the game.

Another word to describe the game would be consequential. It’s entirely plausible Boise State’s comeback dashed Utah State’s postseason chances. Before Saturday night, Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast gave Utah State only a 20.8% chance of making the NCAA Tournament; the Aggies were also only featured on two brackets surveyed on Bracket Matrix. The Aggies had a razor-thin margin for error, but so did Boise State.

Here’s how the Broncos did the unthinkable.

The first stage of the comeback snuck up on the crowd.

Usually when a team tries to mount a furious comeback, it relies on fouling. Logic dictates that fouling another team gives the trailing team the best shot at staying in the game because the clock stops with every foul. The ideal outcome to playing the foul game — especially like the USU-BSU game, in which both teams were in the double-bonus — is to stop the clock, force the other team’s best players to get in foul trouble, or bank on the team with the lead to miss a bunch of free throws.

Only one of these things happened.

Utah State’s star center Neemias Queta picked up his fifth foul with 3:36 to go. He exited the game with 12 points and six boards, grinning and giving dap to his teammates down the bench before taking a seat. Queta had every right to be nonchalant; the Aggies had an 18-point lead. Plus, USU had four starters out on the floor against mostly Boise State reserves. The Aggies had a clear experiential advantage.

Boise State didn’t play some of its stars either. The Mountain West’s leading scorer Derrick Alston Jr. went to the bench before the 4:12 mark, joining the Oregon transfer Abu Kigab, who nearly had as many fouls (four) as he did points (nine). Instead, Boise State rolled out a lineup with three reserves and two starters, including Dennis, who got his fourth start of the season that night.

By the time Dennis checked back in at the 3:36 mark, Boise State was still a far cry away from beating USU. Few could’ve predicted what Dennis had in store.

The freshman, who came in averaging 3.2 points per game, couldn’t miss. He took matters into his own hands, was unflappable at the free-throw line and went 4-4 from distance after making seven threes all year. To add to the lore, he became one of seven players in the last decade to score at least 19 points without a miss in under 20 minutes. Not bad for a guy who had 18 points to his name since Christmas.

After trading free throws and fruitless USU possessions, Dennis started launching threes. On the heels of making his first three of the night, he pulled the Broncos within six with an NBA-range three that barely touched the net.

Dennis’s perfect night will rightfully be the thing Bronco fans remember about the comeback, but his defense was just as important. On the next play, Dennis nearly pickpocketed Abel Porter, then darted to the opposite corner and dove for the loose ball. Merrill recovered, but lofted a pass that Max Rice intercepted and took to the rack for two.

Without Dennis disrupting that play, the Aggies could’ve bled the clock and forced the Broncos to foul. Instead, Boise State went six straight possessions without sending Utah State to the free throw line — all thanks to Williams’s solid defense, Dennis’s quick shots and several unforced errors from the Aggies, who turned the ball over six times in the final four minutes of regulation.

But on the seventh possession, Merrill finally drew a foul. The senior split multiple defenders from beyond the three-point line, cut into the lane and missed a contested layup with two seconds left on the shot clock. If Merrill would’ve hesitated for a moment longer — or if Max Rice’s help defense arrived sooner — the Broncos might’ve shut out the Aggies on that possession too. Instead, Merrill went to the line; the 88.5% free-throw shooter sank them both.

That didn’t matter, because Dennis dialed up yet another three.

Five seconds of game time later, Dennis blew past his defender and into the vacant lane, sending the crowd into a frenzy with an emphatic dunk:

But the Broncos weren’t out of the woods yet. Aside from Dennis’s dunk, both teams came apart at the seams in the final minute. During the second stage of Boise State’s comeback, both teams traded blunders. Kigab, a 13.5 PPG scorer put back in the game for his offense, fouled out. Then Bean, a 79% free-throw shooter, missed the front end of the ensuing free throws.

Yet the night’s sloppiest sequence of events came with less than 20 seconds left. Diego Brito threw a bounce pass out of bounds...

...then Jessup flung a risky jump pass over a double-team and into Bean’s waiting arms. Both teams actively tried losing the game, but someone had to win.

Despite these miscues, the Broncos had a little bit of magic left in them.

After Bean’s free throws, Dennis bolted down court and swirled in his fourth three of the night. In the blink of an eye, Jessup intercepted Utah State’s inbounds pass, tiptoed along the baseline and made a contested layup over two defenders with less than two seconds left. For the first time since tipoff, the game was tied.

Try that move, and your foot will step out of bounds 99 times out of 100. That body control was a dextrous move from a veteran player who didn’t let his 3-11 start deter him from delivering when BSU needed him most.

Liberated from the pressures of playing from behind, the Broncos played freely in overtime. Jessup’s layup gave Boise State its first lead of the game with 3:37 to go, and the Broncos didn’t look back. Alston re-entered the game and scored four points, barely missing his 19.4 PPG average with a 19-point effort. Although Dennis didn’t attempt another field goal in overtime, he passed the proverbial baton to Jessup, who snapped out of his off-night by scoring six points on 2-2 shooting.

Jessup’s second three of the night was the dagger. The senior curled around a high screen, received a pass from Alston and hit a three over Sam Merrill to put the Broncos up 85-79 with 1:04 remaining. Dennis’s thunderous dunk was undoubtedly the lasting image of the comeback, but Jessup’s three over the reigning MWC Player of the Year was pretty damn close.

Utah State cut it down to a one-possession game one more time, but the damage was done. Believe it or not, Porter’s layup with 15 seconds left was the Aggies’ first field goal since Sam Merrill’s runner at the 5:35 mark. In between those two field goals, USU went 11-12 from the free-throw line.

It just wasn’t enough.

In statistical terms, calling this comeback unlikely would be an understatement.

Boise State was the only team to come back from a 19-point deficit after the under-eight timeout this season. The next fastest comeback came courtesy of the UC Riverside Highlanders, who erased Fresno State’s 19-point lead in 9:42 — almost an eternity compared to what the Broncos had.

Meanwhile, the Aggies are in dire straits.

After posting a 13-2 record with wins over LSU, Florida and North Texas in 2019, Utah State has gone 1-4 in 2020. Going into the season, the defending MWC co-champs were expected to surpass last season’s 28-win campaign with all five starters returning. Instead, the wheels have fallen off the wagon.

If anything, Utah State can take solace in the fact that Boise State is in the same boat. The Broncos will also need a Mountain West Championship title to make the NCAA Tournament, as they currently have a 1.8% chance of making the tournament, per TourneyCast.

But after Saturday night, the Broncos might as well throw probability out the window.