Saturday, March 13, 2010 | 10 p.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss a 55-45 UNLV loss in the MWC title game to San Diego State, which didn't necessarily burst the Rebels' NCAA tournament hopes, but rather will simply affect their seeding in the field of 65. Roughly 20 hours after an epic night of semifinal action, fabulous freshman Kawhi Leonard paced the Aztecs to a victory with 16 points and a career-high 21 rebounds.
A year ago, getting to the title game of the Mountain West Conference tournament wasn't enough to keep San Diego State's NCAA tournament bubble from bursting a day later.
Now, after the Aztecs lowered their stress level by securing the league's automatic bid on Saturday with a 55-45 victory against UNLV, the Rebels can still probably head into Selection Sunday pretty confident at 25-8 overall with a firm resumé in its portfolio.
"I'm still confident that we'll be seeded. It probably won't be that high, and I don't expect it to be that high, but I'm sure we'll make the tournament," sophomore forward Chace Stanback proclaimed in the wake of UNLV's second loss this season to SDSU in three tries. "We're definitely down right now, but we've still got a lot of basketball left to play."
Following Friday night's epic semifinal round, both UNLV and San Diego State (25-8) were widely assumed to be solidly in the NCAA's field of 65, with Saturday's title game being played for both pride, seeding purposes and, of course, the guarantee of a ticket to the dance.
Despite some shake-ups on Saturday across the country — provided by the likes of Houston, New Mexico State, Minnesota and Mississippi State — several experts still think UNLV will hear its name called come 3 p.m. Sunday.
Saturday's outcome just might add a bit of nervous energy to the room when the Rebels get together to watch the unveiling of the tourney brackets following the team's season-ending awards banquet.
"I think once our name comes up, then we can finally relax," junior guard Kendall Wallace said. "Hopefully it comes up and we can have a big sigh of relief and look forward to next week.
"I think we've played some very tough teams this year and won the games we've needed to win, for the most part. We had a good road record, we won against some tough teams. I don't know what else they're looking for."
A third tournament bid in four seasons on Sunday also might be the best elixir to help the Rebels forget about Saturday's outcome.
Both teams started off slow, with multiple factors to blame.
Wallace said nerves on both sides may have played a part in the sluggish first half, but another key may have been fatigue across the board, as each team had less than 24 hours to recover from brutal battles in a heated atmosphere Friday night.
UNLV trailed by three at the half, 25-22, and in the second half appeared to take a strong upper hand as SDSU had trouble adjusting to the Rebels' full-court pressure defense.
Forcing Aztec turnovers, miscues and frustration helped the Rebels construct a 38-34 lead with 12:45 to play following a Stanback 3-pointer.
However, the tides turned quickly from there, as UNLV would only muster three made field goals the rest of the way, including two droughts of nearly five minutes between buckets.
In that final 12:45, UNLV was just 3-for-16 from the floor with seven turnovers.
Throughout the night, San Diego State controlled the glass with its long, athletic and hyper-active front line. That ultimately made the difference as UNLV struggled to create offense down the stretch.
SDSU out-rebounded UNLV 37-26, and in three meetings this season, won the battle of the boards by a combined margin of 120-91.
Freshman forward Kawhi Leonard sealed tournament MVP honors with his incredible 16-point, 21-rebound performance, including hitting eight consecutive free throws down the stretch.
Meanwhile, after having a career night for the Rebels on Friday in a 70-66 victory over No. 14 BYU, UNLV sophomore Brice Massamba struggled. He picked up two quick fouls, then was bottled up in the second half, finishing with no points, two rebounds and two turnovers before fouling out after playing 18 minutes.
"When you think about their five man, four man being Thomas and White, very, very active, very athletic, can get out and cover perimeter guys, as well as block shots on the interior," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Then of course Leonard is fantastic. He does a terrific job in every way. He may set the standard for strong athletes, combination of both strength and athleticism.
"Everybody would like to recruit a guy to match up with him, but hard to find those."
San Diego State was far from pretty stat-wise, going 18-of-46 from the floor, 4-of-13 from deep and committing 18 turnovers.
But UNLV simply matched that, hitting 17 of 52 shot attempts, going 6-of-22 from 3-point range and turning it over 15 times.
Junior guard Tre'Von Willis, playing on a left ankle still sore from an incident during Friday's second half, scored 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting, while sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield also tallied 11. The sore thumb on Bellfield's stat line, though, was six turnovers compared to five assists.
Stanback had 10 points, seven rebounds and three steals in the losing effort.
Now it's simply time for UNLV to hurry up and wait for Sunday's selection show.
Some teams' bubbles more than likely popped on Saturday with league's such as the WAC and Conference USA now probably gobbling up two bids apiece due to title game upsets.
But UNLV still feels as if it has little reason to worry, as the Mountain West is still on track for a record four NCAA bids. That thinking is probably accurate, and Kruger, after all of his years in the game, has as good a feel for the situation as anyone.
"If there was really a big doubt about us being in then that's a little different for sure," Kruger said. "We've been in the situation before. But this group has obviously accomplished what it needed to to be selected, and we'll just wait and see what the seed is and where we go.
"This group's been in (the tournament field) for a while based on what everyone says. Winning two games this week adds to it. I don't think that's an issue with our guys. They're just disappointed to have lost a championship game."