Friday, March 11, 2011 | 10:37 p.m.
Down by 10 points in the second half Friday and with a berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament virtually guaranteed, the UNLV basketball team could have easily mailed it in. But they didn’t.
Not these Rebels. Not this relentless bunch of downright overachievers.
Instead, they slowly chipped away at their deficit and never backed down against a bigger and more athletic San Diego State squad in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals.
Still, the end result wasn’t what the Rebels hoped for, falling 74-72 in the final seconds.
It was the third defeat to No. 7 San Diego State this year. In each setback, the Rebels stayed close for parts of the game because of pure hustle, but, ultimately, a relentless style of play can only take you so far. Talent eventually takes over.
For most of the game, the five players on the floor wearing Aztec white were better than the five players guarding them in Rebel red. And it often appeared that the UNLV players realized it.
While you have to give credit for UNLV twice rallying back from double-digit deficits, it didn’t have enough to get over the hump. Every time the Rebels made the game interesting, San Diego State would piece together a few good possessions and extend its lead.
Part of the reason was San Diego State’s trio of Malcon Thomas, Billy White and Leonard, who combined to finish with 43 points and 19 rebounds in dominating the interior. D.J. Gay was equally impressive from the perimeter in scoring 15 points, including making three of four on 3-pointers.
The two semifinal games (which were played in front of an awesome sellout crowd of 18,500) reaffirmed that BYU and San Diego State are the league’s elite teams. They deserve the national exposure and both have a legitimate chance at making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
In the first semifinal, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette showed why he is undoubtedly the best player in the league’s 12-year history by erupting for 52 points in a victory against New Mexico.
UNLV (24-8) will also advance to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the field for the fourth time in five years — a significant accomplishment considering being on the tournament bubble used to be the norm before the Rebels reached the Sweet 16 in 2007. It will likely be a No. 8 or 9 seed, which gives them a better-than-average chance at winning a tournament game for the third time in five years.
Despite the loss, UNLV proved that it is not a bad team. It’s just not as good as San Diego State, especially on the inside.
The Rebels have become an entertaining team to watch. They aren’t the biggest, strongest or most athletic, but they definitely come to play each game. The never-say-die attitude is refreshing.