Aztecs deliver knockout blow to Rebels

When it was all said and done, UNLV’s stay in the 2014 Mountain West tournament ended just about as one would expect.

The Rebels showed signs of being a really good basketball team, hanging with No. 8 ranked San Diego State for the first 25 minutes in Friday’s semifinal.

The Rebels then went into one of their all-took familiar offensive funks, going almost 10 minutes without a field goal thanks to poor shooting, questionable shot selection and tough San Diego State defense as the Aztecs built up a 48-33 lead.

And it ended with as so many UNLV games have during a disappointing 20-13 campaign – a late comeback that was once again derailed by a couple of key turnovers and missed 3-pointers.

In the end, the better and tougher team – both mentally and physically – won, 59-51. The Aztecs (29-3) advanced to Saturday afternoon’s 3 p.m. championship game to face No. 20 New Mexico (26-6), which barely held off Boise State, 70-67, in the other semifinal.

UNLV? The question now is are the Rebels even good enough to attract an NIT bid? And would they accept it if they are?

“I’ll sit down with our athletic director, Tina Kunzer-Murphy, and talk about those things, if there is an option to play in the post-season,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Then we’ll have a team meeting and see where we are.

“We got a group that loves to play. I was proud of the fact that we had a hard-fought win yesterday. Certainly was disappointed for our group with the outcome today. Got a lot of guys coming back. It’s something we haven’t even started to think about yet because our whole focus was on trying to win this tournament.”

Rubbing salt in the latest loss to the Aztecs – UNLV went 0-for-3 against San Diego State this season – was the fact the son of a former Rebel who was also recruited by UNLV played a key role in it.

Junior forward Dwayne Polee II scored a team-high 18 points and made a number of key plays in crunch time to squash the Rebels’ comeback hopes.

“That’s why when he left St. John’s we tried so hard to recruit him,” Rice said.

But Polee II, whose father Dwayne Polee played for Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels in 1981-82, picked San Diego State instead. And the athletic, smooth-shooting 6-foot-7 junior made UNLV pay for it in a big way Friday night.

The Mountain West’s Sixth Man of the Year sank 3-of-5 3-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and also had three steals and helped key an Aztec defense that held UNLV without a field goal for almost 10 minutes while building the 48-33 second half lead.

“He’s our sixth starter, and we can count on him coming in and energizing our team when he comes in,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “He likes doing that.”

“Well, as the sixth man, that’s what I like do: be the sparkplug for our team,” Polee said. “Whether it’s offensively or defensively, I like to come in and bring a lot of energy.”

Senior point guard Xavier Thames added 17 points and a game-high six assists for the top-seeded Aztecs, who held the No. 4 seed Rebels to 10 points and 4-of-16 shooting from the field over the first 15 minutes of the second half en route to their sixth straight victory.

“We came here to win three games,” Fisher said. “We came here to compete like crazy. We’ve done that for two. We did it again today.”

UNLV (20-13), which saw its four-year NCAA Tournament run snapped with the loss, kept it close until early in the second half, trailing just 33-31 after a 3-pointer by guard Deville Smith with 16:14 to go. But the Aztecs clamped down defensively after that.

“The shots we normally make weren’t dropping at one point in time,” junior forward Roscoe Smith, who finished with eight points, said.

UNLV cut the deficit to five points, 56-51, on a 3-pointer by guard Bryce Dejean-Jones with 48 seconds left, but Polee sealed it with a key steal and three free throws down the stretch.

Deville Smith led UNLV with 18 points and junior forward Khem Birch added six points, a game-high 15 rebounds and five blocks.

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