MWC Tournament:

Colorado State puts itself firmly in the NCAA bubble

Rams’ win sets up game with top-seeded Aztecs

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Colorado State forward Pierce Hornung drops in two points against TCU during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game Thursday, March 8, 2012. Colorado State won 81-60.

MWC Tournament: Colorado State vs. TCU

Colorado State fans Lesley Murray, left, and Laura Danielson cheer on their Rams during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game against TCU Thursday, March 8, 2012. Colorado State won 81-60. Launch slideshow »

The Colorado State Rams will go to sleep tonight much more confident in their future than they did the night before Thursday’s quarterfinal game against TCU.

Twenty-one point victories can have that effect.

When the second game of the Mountain West tournament’s opening day came to a close, the numbers told the story: 53 percent shooting; 50 points in the paint; plus-11 rebounding margin; six players in double figures; and, most importantly, one trip to the NCAA Tournament.

CSU’s 81-60 victory against TCU all but guaranteed that the Rams will be the fourth team from the Mountain West to go dancing.

“We came to win the conference tournament. We thought that we could ... put ourselves in this conversation,” CSU coach Tim Miles said.

The Rams entered the day included in most NCAA Tournament bracket projections, but one victory put them over the top, especially considering the collective weakness of this year’s bubble.

But, like Miles said, the Rams have loftier goals this weekend than one win.

“(We’re trying) to win the conference tournament and see if they can keep us out that way. They can’t,” he said.

If Thursday’s games are an indication, CSU is in prime position to knock off top-seeded San Diego State at 6 p.m. Friday.

While the Aztecs needed a Jamaal Franklin buzzer beater to dispose of Boise State, the Rams dominated their game like a team that had something to prove (which, of course, they did).

First-team all-conference pick Wes Eikmeier scored the team’s first eight points, which then opened up the lane for the big men to attack. Despite missing 6-foot-6 forward Greg Smith — the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder was out with a sprained ankle — the Rams dominated the paint and piled up a staggering 50 points on the interior.

Pierce Hornung led the way with a double-double (16 points, 14 rebounds) while forwards Will Bell (14 points) and Dwight Smith (13 points) were close behind.

“It was definitely a game plan to attack them, keep attacking them, win down there in the paint,” Hornung said. “The threes will come when you do that.”

CSU dominated inside so much that it really didn’t need to go back outside (4-for-10). But that may be something the Rams implement against the Aztecs.

CSU’s Smith is day-to-day, so the task of handling conference player of the year Franklin, who scored 19 including an off-balance 3-pointer for the win against Boise State, may fall on the remaining forwards. They were up to the task Thursday, but Miles joked that they may need some outside help.

“Where is Jeff Gillooly at?” Miles jokingly asked in reference to the man who clubbed Nancy Kerrigan. “That was a joke. If something happens tonight, it wasn’t me. … That’s a different nightmare for me to have at about 2 a.m.”

Maybe their sleep won’t be so restful after all.

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