The Wild, Wild (Mountain) West

Jeff

On a cold Wednesday night in Laramie, Wyoming, junior guard Jeff Elorriaga found himself in an interview with ROOT Sports following the Broncos game against the Wyoming Cowboys. This is what Jeff had to say. “Mountain West basketball is here, we’re ready to go.” But what could possibly elicit such confident exuberance in one of the most difficult conferences in NCAA Basketball.

Needless to say there was a healthy amount of drama leading up to the Broncos face-off against the Cowboys Wednesday night. Let me make a list for you:

  1. Cowboys were ranked #25 in the coaches’ poll and were 1 of the 4 remaining unbeaten teams in the country.
  2. Laramie, WY is at a very high elevation.
  3. Wyoming is considered one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
  4. Wyoming’s star senior guard Luke Martinez broke his hand in a bar-fight and would be sitting out against Boise State.
  5. Broncos were on the road.
  6. BSU had already handed 3 teams (Texas Southern, Creighton, LSU) their first loss of the season.
  7. THE KICKER: 28 hours prior to tip-off Coach Rice suspended 4 Broncos, Darrious Hamilton, Kenny Buckner, Mikey Thompson, and leading scorer Derrick Marks due to certain “character decisions”. *

Playing on the road is never easy. Playing on the road against a ranked team is even harder. Defeating the undefeated, on the road, 7,200 feet of elevation, missing 3 of your best players, nearly impossible. It was as if the basketball-powers-that-be were testing this young team, I mean the chips were entirely stacked in Wyoming’s favor (except for Luke Martinez’s hooligan antics). Wednesday night was a chance for the Broncos to show their true colors and truly make a statement to the college basketball world, and that they did. Without the likes of Marks and Thompson, the Bronco were forced to change up their usual high-speed, fast-scoring offense and instead try to pick apart the top ranked Cowboy defense. This worked out in favor of the Broncos who were able to consistently remain on top throughout the duration of the first half, but the Cowboy’s were hot on their tails only down by 5 heading to the lockers.

With Buckner out, there was a lot of pressure on starting big man Ryan Watkins to control the paint. However after receiving 2 fouls in the first half, and another 2 in the first 4 minutes of the second, Watkins was limited to 22 minutes and opened the door for walk-on sophomore Jake Ness to try his best at controlling WYO’s beast of a 4 man Leonard Washington. Entering the game, Ness realized that he had 2 jobs, set screens, and get in Washington’s face, in fact the walk-on didn’t even take a shot. Jake was able to get the job done though despite the mismatch, racking up 3 rebounds of his own while holding Washington to 4 rebounds and a below average 12 points.

The game shifted quickly into the Cowboys favor in the second half with a 19-3 run, leaving the Broncos down 10 with just over 11 minutes remaining. From then on it was a tight race between the two teams up until the games closing seconds.

The scene is set; 57 all with under a minute to go, Wyoming ball. A set of free throws from Riley Grabau puts the Cowboys up by 2 with :44 remaining. Broncos drive down court and get the ball to Jeff Elorriaga who drills a 3 pointer to put his team up 1 with precious time running out. Wyoming inbounds the ball and holds, hoping to run the clock out and snag the games last shot, but a smart foul by Elorriaga sends Freshman Josh Adams to line. He makes them both, Broncos trail 61-60, 9.1 seconds left. Bropleh inbounds the ball to Hadziomerovic, Iggy goes baseline to baseline, drives to the hoop, and passes out to Elorriaga behind the arc. Bronco fans everywhere feel their heart stop as Jeff pulls up for one of his signature 3 pointers. Release, buzzer, swish, slience.

Now back to the interview from the beginning. Why was this kid so confident? For one, he has the hottest hand in the NCAA, shooting 49.5% from behind the arc. But also, he had just accomplished what many saw impossible. Facing the #25 ranked team in the nation, on the road, missing crucial players, the Broncos left Laramie on top, and in dramatic fashion. Yes, I believe such a win constitutes a bit of confidence.

Alright Bronco Nation, conference play has finally begun and Boise State opens with a marquee win, time to breathe right? Wrong. This is the Mountain West people. With 6 projected tournament teams, Mountain West play will be a grind week in and week out, all the way until March. The Broncos follow up their tough conference opener this coming Wednesday against the currently ranked #25 University of New Mexico Lobos, at Taco Bell Arena. I would say that this is a big game for the Broncos, but who am I kidding, every conference game is a big game when you’re playing in the MWC. Need some perspective on this game, the Broncos, who just beat unbeaten WYO on the road, play their conference home-opener against the #25 UNM Lobos, who just beat #24 UNLV at home this past Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you excited for this game then I don’t know what will. Expect the Lobos to move up in the rankings on Monday, setting the stage for the Broncos to once again take their shot at another Top 25 opponent. After playing the likes of #14 Michigan St. (loss by 4), #11 Creighton (won by 13), and #25 Wyoming (won by 2) on the road, Wednesday night will be the Broncos first chance, and certainly not the last, to take on a ranked opponent at home. With ranked teams such as UNLV and SDSU on the horizon, Wednesday night’s home opener will be an excellent chance for Bronco Nation to get a taste of what Mountain West play is going to be like. One thing is for sure, Taco Bell Arena will be rockin as thousands of crazed fans will fill the seats to cheer on their Broncos. Mountain West basketball is here my friends, our team is ready, are you?

Oh, and here is a clip of Jeff’s buzzer beater:

*A couple updates on the status of the suspended players. According to Coach Rice, all 4 players will be practicing with the team this week. Additionally, Rice stated that the suspensions were not related to any drugs or violence. Therefore, it is safe to presume that it was an academic related incident seeing as the decision came immediately following the release of fall semester grades. Hopefully we see them back by Wednesday to take on New Mexico.

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