Men's basketball run ends in Big Sky quarters
POCATELLO, Idaho -- This historic season for Northern Colorado men's basketball ended the same way it began.
With free throws.
The Bears were behind just 51-50 with 6:43 remaining Saturday night in their Big Sky tournament quarterfinal game against Idaho State inside cavernous Holt Arena. At that point, it was anyone's ball game, and Northern Colorado seemed poised to build on its first appearance in this tournament with a win in a hostile road environment.
And if you would have told Tad Boyle and the rest of his assistant coaches and players that the Bengals wouldn't hit another field goal in the game, they would have been a happy group.
Well, Idaho State did just that, missing all four of shots down the stretch. But 16 free throws not only only helped the Bengals overcome that cold streak, it also helped them take complete control of the game and move to the Big Sky semifinals with a 67-60 win.
The Bears (14-18, 8-8 Big Sky) lost their season opener at Oregon this year on some missed free throws in the final seconds. A little different circumstance than what transpired Saturday night, but the hurt was just the same.
And it put a cap on a season that saw Northern Colorado accomplish things never seen by the Bears program. Tad Boyle's group became just the third Bears team to finish at or above .500 in conference since 1994, it qualified for postseason play for the first time since 1994 and it featured Northern Colorado's first all-Big Sky performer in senior Jabril Banks.
Little of that mattered, though, Saturday night in the postgame locker room at Holt. This was a fun season, for sure, for the Northern Colorado players and all those who follow Boyle's program.
They didn't want this record-book run to end.
"This was a pretty good environment for college basketball," Boyle said, "and I'm proud of the way we played tonight. I'm never proud of the result when we lose, but I'm proud of those guys.
"I hurt for them. There's a lot of emotion going in that locker room right now, and I know they wanted to win this game just as much as I did. We played well enough to win for parts of this game tonight, but we just didn't close it out. I don't want to think too much about next year, but that's one thing that we've got to work on as a program. We've got to close out ballgames better than we are. We've got to get stops and we've got to be the tougher team."
If there was some good news to be had Saturday night, one need to look no further than Northern Colorado's leading scorers. Juniors Will Figures and John Pena each led the team with 14 points, and true freshman Mike Proctor ended with nine points and nine rebounds.
The players who won't be here next year, seniors Jabril Banks and Robert Palacios, had a rough final game with the Bears. Banks struggled to find a rhythm against Idaho State's double teams and finished with five points on 2-7 shooting. He also suffered an apparent dislocated finger in the second half.
Palacios finished with two points and five rebounds.
"I really like our guys -- those coming back and those that are done after tonight," Boyle said. "There are some teams and some seasons that, quite honestly, as a coach, you just can't wait for the season to get over with so you can move on. I didn't feel any of that with this team. None. I just didn't want to see this year end for that group of guys.
"I thought we were good enough to win this conference tournament, but we just didn't play well enough tonight. And now it's done."
Northern Colorado had won the first half against Idaho State in each of their previous two meetings this season, and that played out again here on Saturday night. The Bears took a 36-30 lead into halftime after hitting six of 12 three-pointers and outrebounding the Bengals 22-19. It was the second time in the first 20 minutes the Bears held a six-point lead, following their 13-7 bulge at the 14:39 mark in the first half.
Idaho State outscored Northern Colorado 37-24 in the second half, shooting 24 free throws to the Bears' 10.
"I thought we were the more physical team in the first half," Boyle said. "We outrebounded them and we played with a lot of aggressiveness. But in the second half, we couldn't get a bucket and we just made too many mistakes."
Proctor has steadily grown into a full-blown contributor for
Northern Colorado this season, and he was the star in the first
half Saturday night. He went into the break with nine points and
seven rebounds, and a few of his baskets were key in keeping the
Holt Arena crowd in check.
Figures came on strong toward the end of the first half, finishing with seven points, and Beitzel finished with six points after scoring just two against the Bengals in Northern Colorado's loss here on New Year's Day.
The Bears could have been in even better shape at the break, but they weren't really able to take advantage of some Idaho State cold streaks. The Bengals didn't connect on a field goal or score any points between the 16:52 and 11:34 marks in the first half.
In that over-five-minute stretch, Northern Colorado missed all six of its free throws, turned the ball over twice scored just six points themselves. A Bears run there might have made it a whole different ballgame.
NOTES: Northern Colorado is now 2-16 all-time in Pocatello... Banks finishes his Northern Colorado career atop the list in NCAA Division I field-goal percentage (.598), second in free throws made (220), third in rebounding (347), fourth in scoring (769 pts.) and fifth in field goals made (272)... Palacios departs Northern Colorado fifth in career steals (65).