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Colorado State has quietly pulled within a game of first place in an extremely tight race for the regular season Mountain West title.
Now winners of three in a row, the Rams evened the season series with Boise State with an important 75-62 win over the Broncos at Moby Arena on Tuesday night.
“Really terrific performance by our guys tonight all the way through,” Niko Medved said postgame.
“Came out from the opening tip and played great defense. I thought we challenged them physically. This is a team that’s been rolling, an NCAA Tournament team, and I thought our guys were really good.”
Although it’s easy to start looking down the line — CSU’s schedule is incredibly challenging in the coming weeks but also gives the team a shot to control its destiny — the mindset inside the locker room is that the Rams have to take things one game at a time.
It was the case when the Rams started the season 13-1 and CSU was being forecasted as a potential 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was the case when they lost four out of six and many of the fans panicked. And it’s still the case now that the Rams have really found a groove over the last 10 days.
“I know people probably don’t want to hear this. I haven’t looked at the league standings lately,” Medved said.
“I just don’t really care right now. I mean, I just want to win the next one. For us, tomorrow there will be 32 days left in the regular season. What I do know is if we’re playing well, we can beat anybody. And we’ve just got to focus on ourselves.”
Here are some more takeaways from Tuesday night.
Josiah Strong was a team-high +15 in 28 minutes.
His impact defensively has always been important but he’s really starting to find his rhythm within the offense. Coming off back-to-back double-digit performances, Strong went 3-of-5 from the floor and finished with 6 points, 3 assists.
He’s one of the unsung heroes of this team that just goes about his business and does all the little things right.
Rashaan Mbemba is just a true freshman but the 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward might end up being an x-factor for the Green & Gold down the stretch.
With both Patrick Cartier and Joel Scott dealing with foul trouble on Tuesday night, Mbemba played 13 minutes against the Broncos and finished +13 during his time on the floor. He scored 8 points and pulled down four rebounds. He knocked down all four of his free throws as well.
Following the win, Niko Medved talked about the confidence Mbemba has in himself and the great skill that he possesses.
“He’s got great hands. Great touch for a big kid,” Medved said. “And he plays with a lot of physicality. I’m just really excited about him and he’s gonna be a really good player for us. He’s helped us so much this year.”
Coming off of his best statistical performance since scoring a career-high 13 points in the Thanksgiving win over Creighton, it will be interesting to see what the Rams get out of Mbemba moving forward. Being able to get productive minutes from a first-year player against a physical team like Boise State was definitely encouraging, though.
Both he and Kyan Evans are going to play every night. You can see them getting more and more comfortable in their respective roles as the season progresses.
“Look out for those two guys down the stretch,” Medved said. “I think they can even step it up and really play at their best level all year.”
Big bench minutes
The rotation came up really big for the Rams.
After getting 28 combined points from the guys coming off the bench in the three games leading up Boise State, the rotation produced 23 in the win over the Broncos.
Jalen Lake scored a team-high 8 points in the first half and came up big defensively throughout. As we addressed above, Mbemba had his best night statistically since November. Joe Palmer had 7 points to go along with his block and steal. Two separate times the fan favorite was able to create and-1 opportunities. And Evans came in and played quality minutes on both sides of the floor while Stevens got a rest.
The bench is averaging 13.7 points per game since the start of conference play. The problem is that while the average is about right, it’s been a situation where the Rams get 10 points or 25 points from the unit.
With what the starters are going to produce, it really shouldn’t take heroic performances or 30-point explosions off the bench — at least not most nights. But if they can knock down a few open jumpers, get to the hoop in transition and continue to play quality defense, this team is going to win a lot of games.
They were great in this one.