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September 17, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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Instant Analysis: A win is a win in March, but UNLV scored few style points with victory

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV forward Khem Birch defends Wyoming forward Kerek Cooke Jr. during their Mountain West Conference tournament game Thursday, March 13, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

MWC Tournament: UNLV vs. Wyoming

UNLV's Khem Birch, Deville Smith, Roscoe Smith and Bryce Dejean-Jones celebrate an and-one against Wyoming during their Mountain West Conference tournament game Thursday, March 13, 2014, at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 71-67. Launch slideshow »

MWC Tournament: New Mexico vs. Fresno State

New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow grabs a rebound from Fresno State during their Mountain West Conference tournament game Thursday, March 13, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. New Mexico won 93-77. Launch slideshow »

Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 71-67 victory today against Wyoming in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals. The Rebels, which need to win the tournament to make a fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, advance to play Friday against top-seeded San Diego State in the semifinals.

That was ugly: Thankfully for UNLV, style points don’t matter at this point of the season. It’s all about surviving and advancing, which the Rebels successfully did despite a first half of blunders and nearly blowing a double-digit second-half lead. In the first half, they settled for low-percentage shots from the perimeter, couldn’t slow down Wyoming’s Josh Adams from scoring 18 points and converting one of those dunks you’ll see later tonight on ESPN, and appeared lost on both sides of the court. They had just five points about 10 minutes into the game. Despite a nice scoring burst and solid play in the second half, they nearly squandered the lead because of free-throw shooting woes. On the flip side, Khem Birch, Deville Smith and Kevin Olekaibe combined to go 5 of 6 from the line in the final 30 seconds or so to ice the game after an 11-point advantage was trimmed to one point. Yes, it wasn’t pretty. Then again, UNLV would take another ugly win if it included beating San Diego State Friday.

The Rebels’ most important player: Roscoe Smith was back to his dominating ways on the interior. The power forward returned to the lineup after missing the past two games with a concussion, immediately impacting the game. On UNLV’s first possession with him in the lineup, Smith grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a lay-in to keep the Rebels close when Wyoming led by seven and the game appeared to be getting away. He finished the first half with 11 points and eight rebounds, including a 3-point play where he grabbed a loose ball at midcourt and went the distance for a lay-in while getting fouled. He then loudly yelled and raised his hands to motivate the crowd. It was vintage Smith. He’s the Rebels' most intense player, someone I wouldn’t want to see in a dark alley, and a player they desperately need healthy in the lineup. He finished with a double-double of 18 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds followed by put-backs.

Welcome back, BDJ: I wrote earlier how the Rebels needed Bryce Dejean-Jones in the lineup to make a postseason run. He was suspended from the team last week for conduct detrimental to the team, but reinstated for the tournament. Dejean-Jones led UNLV with 22 points on an effective 9 of 17 shooting, resisting those ill-advised shots he’s known for and showing no rust after the weekend off. He was clearly motivated to make amends for his mistake, giving UNLV the edge it needed to fight off Wyoming. He also had a team-best four assists. After contributing to the Rebels’ second-half scoring outburst, he yelled; “The can’t (bleep) stop me.” He was right. Now, he needs to work on making free throws down the stretch.

A look at the stat sheet: Kevin Olekaibe , the Rebels’ best outside shooter, didn’t take his first shot until 11 minutes remained, finishing with three points (all free throws) and taking just one shot in 33 minutes. Despite being slowed with a leg injury and battling early foul trouble, Khem Birch still impacted the game in finishing with eight points and nine rebounds. More important, he had two nice assists in the second half on interior passes, setting up teammates for easy baskets. That’s why he’ll be in the NBA soon. He found ways to be productive. ... Wyoming’s Josh Adams was a one-man show in scoring 18 first-half points, but UNLV limited to six points in the second half.

Up next: The second leg in the Rebels’ uphill climb of three wins in three days to reach the NCAAs will be the toughest. San Diego State appears to the clicking on all cylinders with a 73-39 victory against Utah State in the quarterfinals, recording the largest margin of victory in the event’s 15-year history. San Diego State already has two victories this season against UNLV, frustrating the Rebels defensively in both wins. It was the same story in San Diego State’s win against Utah State, which scored just 15 first-half points and made just 1 of 10 on 3-pointers in shooting 29 percent. But that’s why they play the games, right? UNLV, after all, was leading San Diego State late in the second half last week and would have won if not for Aztec reserve Matt Shrigley’s hot hand in the final minutes. UNLV will have to play its best to win, which you can argue they haven’t done this season. It would be the perfect time to have a breakthrough performance. But still unlikely.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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