UNLV Runs Away From In-state rival Nevada in Opening Round
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - The last time UNLV hosted arch-rival Nevada at the Thomas and Mack Center, on Jan. 7, things didn't turn out well for the Runnin' Rebels.
And even though the Rebels got revenge for that 64-62 loss, with a 67-62 victory in Reno on Jan. 27, the last thing they wanted was for their season to end against the Wolf Pack in Wednesday's opening round of the 2015 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship.
Behind Christian Wood's 27 points and seven rebounds, No. 7 seed UNLV (18-14) eliminated its Silver State-rival with a resounding 67-46 victory in what was the first-ever postseason meeting for the in-state rivals in a conference tournament.
"Reno is a good team; it's always good," Wood said. "They're an in-state team with us. It's always good, you know, to beat them. It was a good game. It was a dogfight. They played good. I'm just glad we got the win as a team."
With the win, the Runnin' Rebels advance to face San Diego State (24-7) in Thursday's quarterfinal, at 6 p.m. PT. The Aztecs are 6-2 against UNLV in MW Tournament play, while No. 7 seeds are mired in a 4-15 slide all-time in the Championships - including a 1-14 mark in quarterfinal action.
The 10th-seeded Wolf Pack (9-22) closed the season losing five of six and eight of 11, and remain winless in the MW Tournament since joining the conference after losing for the third straight year.
"I don't think the final score was indicative of how competitive that game was today," said coach Dave Rice, whose Runnin' Rebels were picked to finish fourth in this year's preseason media poll. "I thought our defense kept us in the game in the first half. I thought our energy level was fantastic. We shared the ball. We were together. The last two days of practice we were focused. I had no doubt in my mind at shoot-around this morning that we were ready to play."
The teams were competitive midway through the first half, battling to a 12-all tie at the 10:19 mark, when Wood hit one of two free throws for the Rebels. It triggered a 16-4 run over close to eight minutes, as UNLV took advantage of nine Wolf Pack turnover to open up a 27-16 lead with 2:54 left in the half. AJ West's free throw with one second left in the half cut the Rebels' lead to 27-17.
"We thought the biggest key to the game was trying to pressure them and force turnovers," Rice said. "As much as we emphasized defensive rebounding all week long, we aren't a great defensive rebounding team, haven't been all season long. The way for us to try to somehow neutralize that was to try to force some turnovers and get some points off turnovers."
UNLV forced 20 Nevada turnovers, and ended up with 21 points off the Wolf Pack's miscues. In contrast, Nevada forced just six turnovers and had 0 points off them.
Though the Rebels wasted no time in the second half, coming out of the locker room on a 6-2 run to move ahead, 33-19, the Wolf Pack showed signs of life to claw back into the game.
The Rebels managed just three free throws over the next five minutes of the game, while Nevada got seven points from Marqueze Coleman during a 15-5 run that cut the Rebels' lead to 38-34 with 11:27 left in the game. A 3-pointer by Nevada's Eric Cooper a minute later sliced into the lead a bit more, leaving UNLV with a 40-37 edge with 10:17 remaining.
Unfortunately for the Wolf Pack, which came into the game having won three of the previous four meetings, it would be the last field goal for the next eight minutes, as it managed just 6 of 8 free throws, while missing 10 straight field-goal attempts. The Rebels outscored Nevada 27-9 down the stretch to provide the final margin.
"I thought the Rebels played very well for 40 minutes," said Nevada coach David Carter, whose Wolf Pack came into the game having won three of the previous four meetings. "I thought we were careless with the ball, trying too hard to get to the basket. We were driving one against two. We were kind of out of character a little bit. I thought the guys were trying to win the game instead of letting the game come to them."
The Wolf Pack was led by Cooper, who had 10 points, while West had nine points and 18 rebounds, which ranks third all-time for single-game rebounding in MW Tournament play.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @AP_WG