Will the third time be the charm?
UNLV earned a rematch with regular season Mountain West champion San Diego State in Friday night’s Mountain West tournament semifinals by holding off a late Wyoming comeback and garnering a 71-67 victory on Thursday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 22 points, Roscoe Smith finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds and Deville Smith added 15 points to lead the Rebels (20-12), who saw a 11-point lead whittled down to one point by the Cowboys (18-14) with 23 seconds to go.
But Deville Smith, who finished 4-of-5 at the free throw line, nailed two free throws a second later to increase UNLV’s lead to 68-65, and forward Khem Birch sealed it with a free throw eight seconds late after Wyoming’s Nathan Sobey missed an open 3-pointer from the wing.
UNLV lost both of its regular season games with San Diego State (27-3), including a bitter 73-64 loss at home on March 5 that saw the Rebels outscored 12-2 in the final three minutes.
“Absolutely,” said Dejean-Jones, who was suspended for a game after angrily leaving the floor after the last loss against the Aztecs, when asked if he was looking forward to another shot at San Diego State. “Losing never goes well with myself, nor does it with the team. We understand that we have a tough challenge coming up (Friday), but we’re ready for it.”
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“I think we’re happy to still be playing,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
No one appeared to be happier to be back on the court on Thursday than Roscoe Smith, who was very animated and screaming toward the crowd after several of his baskets. Smith had missed the Rebels final two regular season games with a concussion.
“You see the energy that Roscoe Smith brings that we didn’t have last week for the two games when he was out with a concussion,” Rice said. “I mean, 18 points and 13 rebounds coming off the bench. He was that way in practice the last two days. I had no doubt Roscoe would play well today.”
The big question going into Friday’s game is the condition of two other Rebel big men, Birch and Christian Wood.
Birch, bothered by a hip pointer, was noticeably limping at times but still gutted it out for eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes. Wood had two points and four rebounds but appeared to strain his hamstring in the second half and didn’t return.
“He definitely battled for us,” Roscoe Smith said of Birch. “Khem, he’s a warrior, a big warrior on our team.”
“Until told differently, I anticipate he’ll be able to play,” said Rice, who added Birch came back clean on an MRI on his hip on Wednesday.
One thing is for certain. The Rebels are going to have to play one of their best games of the year, if not their best, to get past the eighth-ranked Aztecs and back into the title game for the second straight year. San Diego State simply demolished Utah State, 73-39, in its quarterfinal game on Thursday.
Senior guard Xavier Thames had 15 points and a season-high seven assists, sophomore forward Winston Shepard scored 13 points and senior forward Josh Davis added eight points, 13 rebounds and six steals for San Diego State, which held Utah State to a season-low point total and 29.3 percent shooting from the field.
“We wanted to come in and play a good defensive game,” Thames, named the Mountain West Player of the Year on Monday, said. “Offensively we wanted to come in and play well. I think we did both of those things. That’s why we got a big win today.”
The 34-point margin of victory was the largest in Mountain West tournament history, topping Boise State’s 31-point (83-52) win over San Jose State on Wednesday night.
“That’s one of the better defensive teams I’ve seen in a long time,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. “San Diego State just takes you out of everything you’re trying to do. At least they took us out of everything we were trying to do.”
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said the Aztecs aren’t satisfied with just being conference regular season champions.
“We’re what everybody wants to be,” Fisher said. “We’re the guys that have the trophy and the nets, the undisputed conference champion. Nobody else likes that. We want to get selfish. We want to win another championship.
Friday night’s other semifinal at 8:30 p.m. will feature two-time defending champion New Mexico, a 93-77 winner over No. 7 seed Fresno State, and No. 6 seed Boise State, a 75-62 winner over No. 3 seed Nevada.
PHOTO BY JOSH HOLMBERG