Thursday, March 10, 2011 | 10:32 p.m.
This is supposed to be the UNLV basketball team’s home arena. And during these three crucial days, it’s a venue that is supposed to be packed with scarlet and gray supporters cheering frantically to give the Rebels an advantage.
The Thomas & Mack Center just didn’t feel that way Thursday night. That’s rather embarrassing, Southern Nevada.
The Mack was more like the neutral tournament site Mountain West Conference officials strive for in UNLV’s 69-53 victory against Air Force in the quarterfinals. Sure, it was just Air Force — a team UNLV was expected to steamroll and that plays a deliberate and downright boring style of basketball.
My colleague Case Keefer said it best: “The Mountain West should adopt one of UFC’s policies. If you are boring, you get cut.”
Fittingly, the attendance for the UNLV game was easily the lowest of all four quarterfinal contests. Figures were calculated for the day and night sessions, but the number of open seats for the UNLV game was obvious.
It’s tough to be critical of UNLV fans and students (who unlike during the regular season didn’t receive free tickets) for staying home in this economy. My guess is everyone penciled an easy victory against Air Force and will be out in full force for Friday’s semifinals against San Diego State.
They’ll be needed.
San Diego State has beaten UNLV twice this year and is one of the nation’s undisputed top-10 teams. Plus, there were easily 10 times more San Diego State students in attendance Thursday, cheering from start to finish of the Aztecs’ double-digit victory. Very impressive.
Enough about the crowd. Here’s what the Rebels players did well on the court in winning for a sixth straight game. They are peaking at the right time of the season, improving to 24-7 overall in jockeying for seeding position in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
• Great defense: The shot clock went to less than five seconds three times on Air Force possessions in the opening five minutes. While the Falcons’ offense is nothing to write home about, the UNLV defense deserves a lot of credit. They’ve been solid defensively for most of the year, especially when guarding the perimeter. Air Force only made nine field goals in the first half, didn’t score in the game’s initial six minutes and shot 33 percent for the game. It will take a similar effort Friday against San Diego State.
• Tre’Von Willis gaining confidence: Willis, whose season started slow while recovering from offseason surgery, was shocked earlier in the week when he was voted second-team all-conference. Thursday, he played like one of the league’s best players. Willis had 10 points and five assists in 19 first-half minutes, and for one of the first times this season, he looked like the player who dominated the league last year. He finished with a game-high 20 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. I’m guessing several Rebel fans are hoping he gets another crack at BYU’s Jimmer Fredette.
• Quintrell Thomas a force on the inside: Thomas is starting to play how several thought he would all season — a monster grabbing rebounds and altering shots. The 6-foot-8 post player, a transfer from Kansas, finished with six points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots. He was also 3-of-3 from the field. Plagued earlier in the season with foul trouble, Thomas has gone from a player who didn’t have confidence in himself to one of UNLV’s most important performers. It’s no secret the Rebels are significantly better when they have a threat on the inside. And it's no secret Thomas is better when he's out of foul trouble. He committed his third foul with less than three minutes remaining.