Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 11, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
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- San Diego State prepared for third meeting with UNLV after first-round win
- New Mexico ousts Colorado State; Will third win over BYU get Lobos back in bubble conversation?
- BYU escapes TCU’s first round upset bid
- LIVE GAME BLOG: UNLV advances to face San Diego State on Friday night with 69-53 victory over Air Force
- Live from the MWC Tourney Blog
- Tre’Von Willis ‘shocked’ by second team All-Mountain West Conference nod (3-8-2011)
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- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
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Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer talk their way through the first day of the Mountain West Conference Tournament and discuss whether UNLV can beat San Diego State in the semifinals.
All UNLV had to do was push aside Air Force in Thursday's Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinal round nightcap to set the stage for what could be an epic night of college hoops at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday.
Against an opponent that has rarely beat UNLV in recent years yet found ways to frustrate Lon Kruger's teams on a regular basis, the Rebels were efficient, confident and at times ruthless in a 69-53 waxing of the Falcons.
And now comes the fun part.
UNLV (24-7) will take on seventh-ranked San Diego State (30-2) for the third time this season with major NCAA tournament seeding implications on the line for both teams.
"It's always going to be a tough game against them — we know each other so well," UNLV senior guard Tre'Von Willis said of the Aztecs. "We've practically got the same sets. It's just a matter of who comes and plays more physical, basically wants it more."
Being physical with the Aztecs hasn't been the problem of late for the Rebels. Instead, it's simply been making shots.
If current trends keep up for UNLV, though, Friday night could be a good spot for Lon Kruger's club.
The hot shooting that made them look so impressive in the final four games of the regular season carried over into the start of the Rebels' postseason against the Falcons.
A wide margin was created early by a bevy of falling 3-pointers for UNLV, and steadily hitting more and more of them helped it stay that way. On the night, the Rebels were 11-of-20 from the outside and 24-of-48 from the floor.
The 11 trifectas tied a season high, while the 69 points were the most the team scored in three tries against Air Force this season. All night, the Rebels were successful in providing their own energy. The UNLV fans, strangely, did not turn out with as much force as those of BYU, New Mexico and San Diego State did earlier in the day.
Willis scored 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting, rounding out a strong night with seven rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover. After a couple of his later buckets, Willis interacted with the crowd a good amount in celebration.
Chace Stanback also tallied 20, doing most of his damage from deep, hitting six of his eight 3-point tries.
Inside, surging Quintrell Thomas had an active 21 minutes on the floor with eight points, six rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots.
Oddly enough, though, the three Rebels who had the biggest nights individually are three guys who have struggled against the long, physical, athletic Aztecs this season, making Friday's clash that much more intriguing.
Willis was hobbled some by his lingering knee issues in both meetings, and was a combined 2-of-12 from beyond the arc. Stanback, who averages a shade under 13 points a game, has 13 points combined in 62 minutes against SDSU and is 0-for-7 from deep. Thomas, who is averaging 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds over his last four games, has only played 15 minutes in the two games combined, struggling to find his footing against one of the nation's top frontcourts.
Both regular season meetings were close and came down to the final minute despite UNLV playing sub-par basketball in each contest.
"We're playing as well as we've played all year," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Again, shooting the ball well like we've been helps a lot. Sometimes it will cover some other things when you're making shots. When you're not, everything else is magnified. Our guys know how tough it's going to be. San Diego State is playing great. It will be a huge challenge."
SDSU wasn't necessarily pretty in a 64-50 victory over Utah earlier in the evening, but the Aztecs look to have as much swagger to them as they have had all season.
On the line for Steve Fisher's team is a possible open door back into talks for a No. 1 seed with a successful run through the rest of the tournament, while a No. 2 would be no shabby consolation prize.
UNLV is trying to keep itself from being vulnerable to landing in one of the dreaded No. 8 or No. 9 slots come Selection Sunday, and a victory like this would likely boost its profile enough to eliminate that possibility.
The Rebels also have plenty of frustration built up to this point in this series, having lost seven of their last eight to the Aztecs and now four in a row.
"Our goal is trying to win this thing," Willis said. "San Diego State is in our way right now. We want to win regardless of whether it's four straight or if we're coming off of a win against them."