BOISE, Idaho — Friday, February 22, 2019. 

Don’t look now, but Utah State is only a half-game behind Nevada in the Mountain West.  And guess who’s coming into Taco Bell Arena tomorrow.  Boise State has been thrust into a spoiler’s role in not only the conference regular season title race, but the NCAA Tournament.  The Aggies are increasingly getting buzz as an at-large possibility in the Big Dance next month.  With a 21-6 record, they are playing their way onto the bubble.  In fact, ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi has USU as the “first team out” of the NCAA Tournament in his latest projections.  A loss to the Broncos would all but remove the Aggies from at-large consideration.  But a win sends Utah State home to Logan with back-to-back home games against San Diego State and Nevada awaiting.  Tomorrow’s game is a pivot point.

Utah State junior guard Sam Merrill is familiar to Boise State.  He’s one of the Mountain West’s top scorers at 19.8 points per game and has done some damage to the Broncos the past two years.  Conversely, Neemias Queta is something entirely new.  Queta, a 6-11 freshman from Portugal, has been a game-changer for the Aggies this season and could give Zach Haney and David Wacker fits tomorrow.  USU got a commitment from Queta last spring, but it took until August for the school to get NCAA and academic approval to announce its prize center.  Queta is on a roll now, averaging 14.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks over the past six games.  His 63 blocks for the season are more than 61 entire teams in Division I (the Broncos have, ahem, 59).

Boise State has become a guard-heavy offense and is the only team with three guards among the top 20 scorers in Mountain West play this winter.  Alex Hobbs has been remarkably consistent all the way through, averaging 15.8 points for the season and logging double figures in all but two of the Broncos’ conference games.  The other two guards have been streaky, although Justinian Jessup is coming off a 19-point night at San Diego State.  Derrick Alston is the peaks-and-valleys man (with huge upside).  Now, if Boise State could only get some inside scoring from Haney, Wacker and R.J. Williams.  Not a lot is expected of Haney and Wacker, but Williams rarely moves the needle anymore, averaging just 6.3 points since the Mountain West schedule began and registering double figures just twice. 

END OF THE LINE FOR BEREAL

Boise State coach Leon Rice said when he suspended Jaycson Bereal indefinitely 10 days ago that he was “still gathering information” on Bereal’s downtown arrest.  He must have enough info now, as Bereal has been deleted from the Bronco roster.  The redshirting guard from Tulsa, OK, had already been left home on a couple road trips for academic reasons.  That removes a theoretical distraction from the Boise State locker room going into the Utah State game.  Bereal tweeted a farewell statement that included this: “Thank you to every Boise coach, teacher, friend or fan who has ever spent time with me or helped shape me as a player or person.”

BRONCO WOMEN PROSPER, EVEN WITHOUT LUPFER

The Boise State women have been nails on the road in Mountain West play, going 5-1 away from Taco Bell Arena.  Their next test is tomorrow at Utah State, which is 11-14 overall this season.  Star guard Riley Lupfer’s status is undetermined for the game in Logan.  But the Broncos have more than compensated for Lupfer since she suffered her undisclosed injury at UNLV on February 6.  Not only has Braydey Hodgins reached the 20-point plateau in four consecutive games, Marta Hermida has stepped things up as well.  Over the last three games, the senior from Spain has shot 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three-point line while averaging 14.0 points per game.

YOTES YEARN TO EXTEND THEIR SEASON

College of Idaho is trying not to look ahead, but the Coyotes are in great shape to earn a return trip to the NAIA Division II Championships.  C of I hosts Northwest University Saturday night in the Cascade Conference semifinals and will host the title game next Tuesday if it wins.  Even if the Yotes don't make it all the way through, their chances of an at-large berth increase with every victory.  Elsewhere Thursday night, the Northwest Nazarene men fell 81-66 at Western Oregon to fall out of first place in the GNAC, and the NNU women avenged their only loss of the season, routing Simon Fraser 84-61 in Nampa.  The Nighthawks are now 24-1.

TROUBLE FOR AIR FORCE’S TRICK PLAY TAILBACK

Air Force will be without one of its top offensive weapons when it visits the blue turf in September.  Joseph Saucier is no longer with the Falcons football team, an academy spokesman told the Colorado Springs Gazette this week.  The junior is part of “an ongoing academy investigation,” and was actually removed from the team in December.  Saucier rushed for 274 yards last season and led Air Force with 6.4 yards per carry—and he was poised for a big jump in playing time in 2019.  Boise State fans will remember Saucier.  It was his halfback pass from to Isaiah Sanders just before halftime that gave the Falcons their final lead of the game in the wild 48-38 Boise State victory last November in Colorado Springs.  Saucier also had two catches for 77 yards in the game. 

STEELHEADS SEEK TO KEEP THEIR PRECARIOUS PERCH

There could be more jockeying atop the ECHL Mountain Division this weekend.  The Idaho Steelheads go in with a one-point lead over Utah and a two-point margin over Tulsa, and they play the latter tonight and Saturday night in CenturyLink Arena.  The Steelheads will be without forward Kale Kessy, who has been loaned to the Colorado Eagles of AHL.  That’s ironic, as the Eagles are former division mates of the Steelies but are now in their first year at hockey’s Double-A level.  Kessy has played 32 games with Idaho this season, tallying 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points with 279 penalty minutes.  This is familiar territory for Kessy, as he’s played 160 career AHL games.

WINTER SPORTS START WINDING DOWN

It’s a key weekend for Olympic sports, as the Mountain West Swimming and Diving Championships continue in Minneapolis and the MW Indoor Track and Field Championships get cranked up in earnest in Albuquerque.  Boise State is going for its third straight Mountain West swimming and diving title and its seventh conference crown in the past 10 years.  The Broncos trail Nevada and San Diego State going into the final two days of competition, though.  On the track, Boise State’s men and women swept the distance medley relay titles Thursday, the first time that’s happened in the conference in seven years.  This weekend, Bronco star Allie Ostrander will be competing in the mile and the 3,000-meters, but not the 5,000. 

This Day In Sports…February 22, 1980:

This was the biggest day of all at the Lake Placid Winter Games, and one of the biggest Olympics moments ever—the day Al Michaels made one of the most famous calls in sports history: “Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!”  The underdog US Olympic hockey team defeated the seemingly-invincible Soviet Union 4-3 in the “Miracle On Ice” to set off a national celebration.  A couple weeks earlier, the Russians had humiliated the Americans by seven goals in a 10-3 shellacking.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)