When Chase Grabau went up to attempt a game-winning three-pointer with five seconds left in the game and the Bengals trailing Weber State 62-61, he saw a wide open Kenny McGowen in the corner and opted for the pass instead.
McGowen let his final shot attempt go with 1.5 seconds left in the game and when the horn sounded, the ball passed through the net and gave ISU a 64-62 win over the favored Wildcats.
McGowen’s teammates immediately rushed the court as the entire student section poured onto the floor to celebrate with the Bengals, who had just won their third straight game and handed Weber State its first Big Sky Conference loss of the season.
“I felt it,” McGowen said of the game wining shot. “As soon as I let it go and I heard the buzzer, I said ‘oh goodness this can’t be happening right now.’”
“That was an unreal experience,” Grabau said. “I have been a part of buzzer-beaters in the past, but nothing at this level and in this magnitude of a game. The fans were great all night. When we hit the last shot, people were running onto the court, not just sitting in their seats cheering.”
The whole final sequence was set up by ISU interim head coach Deane Martin and his decision to not call a timeout when one is normally warranted.
After a missed three by the Wildcats’ Damian Lillard, Grabau pulled down the rebound with 20 seconds left in the game. Once Melvin Morgan got across midcourt, Martin let the team run the play.
“There are two ways to do it in that situation,” Martin said. “I knew there were 14 seconds left on the clock and at first I yelled at Melvin that I wanted a timeout. Then once he got it in, I just had to let him go because we can’t stop the game. We just let it go. One, you don’t want them to come out and set up a defense and come out in a zone because we are going to set up a man play. We knew if we could get the ball in Melvin’s hands or Kenny’s hands, they could come off a ball screen and make something happen. We got fortunate that Kenny got loose and we got a shot there at the end.”
McGowen’s game-winner capped a wild final 12:18 of the second half that saw the Bengals build its biggest lead of the game of nine points 47-38 only to see it shrink to one with 7:02 left.
WSU’s Kyle Bullinger hit a three-pointer with 5:46 left before ISU’s Nick Mason took and made his only shot of the night, a three with just under five minutes to go.
Over the past two weeks, the Bengals have placed an emphasis on improving defensively every game. Saturday’s performance against the top team in the Big Sky may very well be the best so far this year.
Idaho State held the conference’s leading scorer Lillard to just 15 points, 10 under his average. He had just two points in the game’s first 19 minutes and finished the half with six.
“I think the fans were even rattling him,” Grabau said of Lillard. “At the free throw line or whenever he made a mistake, it was a big part of what he was trying to prove to the fans or whatever he was trying to do. He had a different agenda. To get him unfocused and kind of playing a different type of game really helped us and our guards really stepped up and guarded him.”
Both teams started the game slowly as neither could get into any offensive rhythm. Midway through the first half ISU had a 7-6 lead.
It was not for lack of opportunities, however, as ISU was called for five first half charges that left at least 10 points off the board.
“I thought I screwed the team up,” Martin said of the offensive fouls in the first half. “I told the team at the start of the game that we have to get to the basket. We don’t want to just start launching up shots. These guys have a hard time with dribble penetration, but we can’t go crazy and start running over people. What do we do, we run over their guys five times.”
ISU made adjustments at halftime and did not pick up one offensive foul in the second period.
Take out the five offensive fouls ISU committed, the team finished with just seven turnovers on the night.
“That’s the way you win the game right there,” Martin said of the turnovers. “We knew if we valued possessions, we knew if we got the ball to the rack that we could guard them. We knew because we have been getting better at that. But the thing we had to do was be smart on the offensive side of the floor to give our defense a chance.”
The Bengals are now on a three-game winning streak for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
The team also played in front of the biggest crowd of the season as 3,309 fans rocked Holt Arena, a fact not lost on Martin.
“We had some opportunities in the second half when we needed to get stops and our fans were great,” Martin said. “That is good for our players and it really means a lot to them. We want to put ourselves in big games and not every game is a big game.”
McGowen lead the Bengals with 19 points while Andre Hatchett had 12 to go along with six rebounds. Grabau added 10 points and eight boards as well.
ISU (7-17, 5-4 Big Sky) now sits in fourth place in the conference and heads out on the road for a tough two-game trip in Montana.
The Bengals begin at Montana State on Thursday at 7 p.m.