RENO – They blew a 17-point second half lead in a span of about nine minutes.
They got swept by their in-state rival for the first time 1995.
They lost for the fourth time in their last six games.
All of which means absolutely nothing now for the UNLV Rebels entering this week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Yep, the Rebels (19-12, 10-8 Mountain West) knew even before Saturday night’s latest meltdown, a 76-72 loss to Nevada, that any hopes of garnering an NCAA Tournament bid for the fifth straight season would center around winning this week’s Mountain West Tourney.
UNLV, which garnered the No. 4 seed, will face No. 5 seed Wyoming (18-13, 9-9) in the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. The Rebels sweated out a 48-46 victory over the Cowboys in their only meeting on Feb. 8 at the Thomas & Mack Center but Wyoming has since lost its top player, 6-foot-9 forward Larry Nance Jr., to a knee injury. Nance had a team-high 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in that contest.
“It will be a huge challenge,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s a methodical team that shoots the ball extremely well. We’re going to be very, very patient on the defensive end but we’ve got a lot to play for.”
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The UNLV-Wyoming winner would — barring a dramatic upset — play regular season conference champ San Diego State, a 51-48 come-from-behind winner over New Mexico in Saturday night’s Mountain West title decider, in the semifinals on Friday night at 6 p.m.
The Rebels, despite playing without top scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones (suspension) and top rebounder Roscoe Smith (concussion), had hoped to build some momentum heading into the conference tourney with a win over the Wolf Pack (15-16, 10-8). And they looked in prime position to do just that after opening the second half with a 13-2 run that boosted their lead to 54-37 with 16:02 to go.
But less than nine minutes later, the lead had evaporated and Nevada went in front 63-60 on a three-point play by junior guard Michael Perez.
The Rebels rallied to tie it, 72-72, on a spinning drive to the basket by Khem Birch with 1:17 remaining, but Nevada took the lead for good on a rebound basket by Cole Huff with 33 seconds left.
Jelan Kendrick, who helped propel the Rebels to their early lead with four 3-pointers, then missed a long trey and Chris Wood failed to connect on a rebound shot. Guard Marqueze Coleman sealed the win a few seconds later with a pair of free throws.
“I told them after the game (that) in terms of our effort, in terms of our camaraderie, I was very, very proud of them,” Rice said. “They stayed together and played hard the entire game and we just came up a possession short.”
Birch, despite playing with a sore hip flexor that limited his mobility in the post, finished with 15 points and a career-high 22 rebounds to lead the Rebels while Kendrick and point guard Deville Smith tied for team scoring honors with 16 points each.
“You think about a guy who has a bad hip flexor and he goes for 15 points and 22 rebounds, it’s a pretty impressive game for sure,” Rice said.
Senior guard Deonte Burton scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the second half and also had 11 assists and eight rebounds to lead Nevada while Huff finished with 22 points and seven rebounds.