Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
- BOX SCORE: San Diego State 74, UNLV 72
- INSTANT ANALYSIS: Give Rebels credit for rallying back, putting a scare into No. 7 SDSU
- San Diego State calm entering third battle with BYU for Mounain West title
- Jimmer Fredette scores 52 as BYU advances to Mountain West final
- LIVE GAME BLOG: San Diego State outlasts UNLV to advance to MWC title game, 74-72
- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
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The UNLV basketball team fell Friday in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament, losing 74-72 to San Diego State. The Rebels have done enough, however, to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and will receive their fate Sunday during the selection show.
For the third time this season, the opportunity crumbled into an agonizing defeat.
A 74-72 Aztec victory was sealed with a D.J. Gay floater in the lane with just under five seconds left to play on Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals. Those heroics came on the heels of a busted alley-oop attempt on the other end that was sniffed out by San Diego State senior big man Malcolm Thomas.
"It's pretty frustrating, because we know we can compete with them," UNLV guard Anthony Marshall said afterward. "You go into games like that expecting a battle. Those are the type of games you're looking for. To come up short three times in a row, it's very disappointing."
But this time, what lies in the immediate future makes the loss a little easier for the Rebels (24-8) to deal with.
While the Aztecs (31-2) get set to play their third game in as many days in Saturday's 4 p.m. title game against BYU, who advanced earlier with an 87-76 victory over New Mexico, the Rebels will reload physically and wait until Sunday afternoon to have their NCAA tournament travel plans cemented.
UNLV was playing not just for its first league tourney title since 2008, but also for better seeding in next week's field of 68.
The consolation prize of knowing that the program's fourth NCAA tournament bid in five years is coming soon wasn't enough to keep the Rebels from wondering 'What if?' with dejected looks on their faces at the end of another physical, close war with the Aztecs.
UNLV looked tentative early on the offensive end but was rescued by a 14-point spurt from Chace Stanback in the middle of the first half. After combining to score just 13 points in the two regular season showdowns with SDSU, Stanback eclipsed that total in a matter of minutes with his hottest stretch of the season.
They led by one with five minutes to go before halftime, but SDSU closed the opening stanza on a 7-0 run and led 44-34 at the break.
The Rebels bumped up their defensive effort and cohesion after the intermission, and thanks to several clutch buckets from Stanback and Tre'Von Willis, combined with a bevy of free throw makes by Marshall, the stage was set late for UNLV to finally get over the hump against the nation's seventh-ranked team.
Their last lead came with just inside of a minute to go, as Stanback hit a jumper atop the key to put UNLV ahead 72-70. Malcolm Thomas answered with two made free throws, and the Rebels called a timeout with 35 seconds remaining in the game and 28 on the shot clock.
"Simply, Tre is going to set a back-screen for Chace," UNLV coach Lon Kruger explained. "They're not leaving Tre. Get the ball in Oscar (Bellfield's) hands. If it's open, throw (the lob), if not, we had Tre popping for a catch-and-drive, with Chace setting up in the corner."
Bellfield opted for the lob to Stanback, but sniffing it out was the springy, 6-foot-10 Thomas, who deflected it and got SDSU the shot at the dagger.
From there, it was history, as Gay milked the clock, knifed the lane and flipped a shot over the outstretched arm of Quintrell Thomas that went in the books as the game-winner. Willis's last-second heave attempt from 30 feet was nowhere near going in.
"It was open," Kruger continued on the lob play. "Oscar made the right decision. Just didn't get it quite high enough. Game of inches."
The inches did tell the story, because on the final box score, the two teams were nearly identical in every statistical category.
Stanback led UNLV with 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting, while Willis continued to look like the 2009-10 version of himself, scoring 19 points in 37 hard minutes. Marshall added 12, including an 8-of-8 showing from the free throw line.
On the other side, Kawhi Leonard hit several key shots down the stretch for SDSU, finishing with a team-high 18 points and eight rebounds. D.J. Gay scored 15, Thomas had 13 and Las Vegas native Billy White tallied 12 thanks to a quick start to the game.
UNLV played tougher against San Diego State's loaded frontcourt than it had all season, despite Quintrell Thomas, who was far more effective this time around than in the first two meetings, mysteriously sitting on the bench for the better part of the second half.
The quality of hoops on the floor matched that of an epic Friday night semifinal round a year ago in the league tournament, and the atmosphere for the entire evening was even better this time around, with capacity crowds of 18,500 in place for both games.
Now, for UNLV, all attention turns to the NCAA tournament after dropping its eighth game in its last nine tries against SDSU.
The Rebels, according to most outside bracket experts, are likely going to fall somewhere between a No. 7 and No. 10 seed, meaning they'll have a strong shot at at least getting to the doorstep of the tourney's second weekend.
Just as they went into Friday night's semifinal wanting to avenge two previous losses to SDSU, they still harbor bad memories from last year's one-and-done trip to the NCAAs, where UNLV was bounced by Northern Iowa in Oklahoma City, 69-66.
For many of the Rebels, it was their first time playing heavy minutes in an NCAA tournament contest.
The trip to the NCAAs was already earned before Friday night, and now all focus shifts to staying a little longer this time.
"Games like this against a top-10 team in the nation, it prepares you for the NCAA tournament," Marshall said. "Last year, we kind of felt our way through the first half (against UNI). The second half we kind of turned it up. We've got to come out of the gates playing hard, flying around, dictating, taking passes away, the stuff we've been doing over the past couple of weeks and over the season."