Survive and Advance: UNLV enters postseason staring down tough draw in MWC tournament

Rebels open second season Thursday night against Wyoming - again - in Mountain West quarterfinals

Lots of chatter going both ways, lots of little elbows and nudges, lots of fouls.

That pretty much sums up the intensity on the floor from last Saturday’s 74-63 UNLV triumph over Wyoming in the regular season finale.

Don’t expect a whole lot to change on Thursday when the two tangle in the 8:30 p.m. nightcap of the Mountain West Conference tournament’s quarterfinal round at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“We like the physicality,” junior guard Justin Hawkins said. “It made us step our game up another notch. I feel when it came to that, we really stepped up.”

Yes, UNLV (25-7 overall, 9-5 Mountain West) gets to play the tournament in its own arena, and as evidenced by plenty of complaining on Monday’s weekly teleconference from the league’s coaches, it’s still a point of contention conference-wide.

But to say that they have it easy after drawing the No. 3 seed this time around would be unfair.

The Rebels and Cowboys (20-10, 6-8) will likely go hard at each other yet again, and whoever emerges victorious will likely have a Friday night meeting with No. 2 New Mexico 24 hours later.

That gives first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice a fine line to walk.

The Rebels have to win the game to move on, obviously. But, at the same time, he has to be conscious of saving some legs for as many as three games in three days.

What does that mean? It means, no matter which way you look at it, it’s all hands on deck.

“The only thing I can worry about is doing whatever it takes to win that first game, and it will be a very physical game,” he said. “It was great to see Kendall (Wallace) play well on Saturday night, so he’ll certainly be part of the rotation. We’ll figure out Quintrell (Thomas) and Carlos (Lopez) and what direction we’ll go there.

“Everyone will be available and ready to go. It’ll be more of a feel thing for me in terms of what direction we go.”

It makes sense that Rice will take a bit of a wait-and-see approach before figuring out how to juggle his rotation as the game wears on.

If it’s close and tight like most of Saturday’s contest was, he might find a few combinations he likes and stick with them. If the Rebels can get out to a nice, comfortable lead early, the bench could get heavy work.

Doing the latter has been tough against Wyoming this season.

Under first-year coach Larry Shyatt, the Cowboys had one of the more consistent defenses in the league. They were first among Mountain West teams this season in scoring defense, allowing only 55.4 points per game while opponents shot at just a 40.8 percent clip.

UNLV did find a nice offensive flow in Saturday’s second half, though, and a key spark in doing so was Wallace, whose frustrating senior season stemming from lingering right knee issues finally got a signature moment. He scored a season-high 14 points, including a key seven-point spurt in the second half that pushed UNLV out to an insurmountable 10-point lead in what had been a close game.

Just as important as the production, though, was that his 13 minutes players were his most since Jan. 5.

Wallace said leading into Saturday’s game that his knee had felt healthy over the last two weeks, and it was visible with the added lift on his jumper.

“I’ve been ready all year, it’s just I got some opportunities that I hadn’t had in the Wyoming game, and took advantage of them,” he said. “Hopefully I can do that coming up here. I’m ready for it.

“We’ve got to save some of our guys out there, so I think we’ll definitely use the bench a little more. The bench has to be prepared, and we know all of our guys have been itching to play, so everyone will be ready to go out there and contribute.”

Beyond Wallace, there are several Rebels who might need to step up and produce off of the bench should UNLV end up playing three games in three days, beginning Friday night.

• Quintrell Thomas has only played 27 minutes in the team’s last four games combined, and has not gotten much of a shot at playing in the second halves of those contests. He can provide a presence on the glass, but continues to be shaky on the offensive end when catching in the post.

• Carlos Lopez has only averaged 5.9 minutes per game in eight contests since returning from an ankle sprain, but the injury still continues to limit his effectiveness, especially on the offensive end. He got a shot at some extended run against Wyoming, but struggled in eight minutes, going 0-for-3 from the floor with two turnovers.

• Sophomore guard Reggie Smith did not play in Saturday’s game, marking his first DNP since becoming eligible in mid-December. Rice said he’ll continue to use him off of the bench when he feels his team needs a shot of energy, which could be the case towards the end of the weekend if UNLV advances.

The one constant from the bench this season has been the minutes eaten by and the consistent production from Hawkins.

But the Rebels know that just that won’t be enough from the second unit this weekend if they hope to give their NCAA tournament seeding as much help as possible.

“We have a veteran ball club that’s been here and knows what to expect,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “To get where we’re trying to go, it’ll take a team effort, that’s one through the end of the bench.”

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