UNLV has had a few days to put behind a bitter Senior Day loss to Fresno Day. Now the Runnin’ Rebels turn their attention to Air Force, another team that handed them a disappointing setback the last time they played.
The Rebels (23-8) and Falcons (17-12) meet in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament at noon today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The two teams split their two meetings in the regular season with UNLV rallying to pull out a 76-71 overtime win in the first matchup on Jan. 12 at the Thomas & Mack. Air Force won the rematch, 71-56, in Colorado Springs on Feb. 13 in a contest that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
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In fact, outside of the two Fresno State losses, the setback to the Falcons was arguably the ugliest of the season for Dave Rice’s squad, who came out lethargic after a huge 64-55 home win of eventual Mountain West champ New Mexico.
Air Force, led by first team all-Mountain West pick Michael Lyons (27 points), jumped out to a 43-29 halftime lead and led by as many as 24 points in the second half. The Falcons roughed up the Rebels inside, finishing with a rare 35-24 rebounding edge, including 11-8 on the offensive boards, and finished with a 13-0 edge in fast break points.
“You look at the stats and they scored 71 points,” Rice said, “And 33 were on second chance points and off of our turnovers (14). … You take away half of those and we’re right there in the game. … We can not give up 11 offensive rebounds and expect to beat a good team like Air Force.”
It was a particularly long night for Rebel forward Anthony Bennett. The Mountain West Freshman of the Year, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds, was banished to the bench midway through the second half after throwing the ball into the chest of Lyons for a technical following a layup by Bryce Dejean-Jones that cut the Falcon lead to 56-39. Bennett was apparently upset at the physical style of defense imposed by the Falcons.
“We can’t have those kind of plays,” Rice said afterward. “That’s not what this team, that’s not what this program is going to be about.”
Rice believes his team is ready to move on from Saturday afternoon’s 61-52 loss to Fresno State.
“We understand the challenge,” Rice said. “We’re now in the challenge where we are in a single-elimination tournament and we’re trying to qualify for another tournament next week. So there’s a lot to play for.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” point guard Anthony Marshall said of the rematch. “Any time you play a team that beat you – and they beat us pretty bad up there – it’s a good challenge for us so I’m looking forward to it. They’re playing some great basketball.”
Air Force comes in off a 89-88 upset of New Mexico on Saturday, snapping a 13-game losing streak to Steve Alford’s Lobos. The Falcons snapped a 11-game losing streak to UNLV with its victory in Colorado Springs last month.
“I feel like we’re going to come out energized and we’ll be ready,” Marshall said.
The winner of today’s game will play the winner of the 2:30 contest between Colorado State and Fresno State on Friday night at 8:30 p.m. The championship game is Saturday at 3 p.m.
Noon: UNLV vs. Air Force
2:30: Colorado State vs. Fresno State
6:30: New Mexico vs. Wyoming
8:30 San Diego State vs. Boise State