Whether it’s losing by 20 in a lopsided affair at The Pit or by five in an epic Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal in a neutral atmosphere, they all feel the same.
That was the thinking of UNLV junior guard Anthony Marshall following Friday night’s 72-67 loss to New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center.
But, in reality, there was no beating the Lobos on this night.
Both teams traded blows over a memorable 40-minute stretch, but flawless free throw shooting and a dominant showing on the glass ultimately gave New Mexico the edge.
They advanced, and will face San Diego State for the tournament title on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Mack.
As for UNLV, Sunday night’s impending good news will have to once again serve as a consolation for coming up empty-handed in the league tourney.
“Any loss is disappointing, but a game like that where you’ve got two great teams going back and forth, and you just don’t make a couple of plays down the end and they end up winning is very disappointing and hurtful,” Marshall said. “To end the regular season like this is hurtful. We still have a lot to play for. We’re one of the teams playing in March, and that’s something to build off of.”
This much is for sure: UNLV (26-8) will be heading to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons. All that remains to be seen is what seed they’ll land — likely somewhere in the 6-to-8 range — who they’ll face to start and where they’ll be sent.
Sure, a tournament title was on the line, but the greatest prize at stake for the Rebels in the Mountain West tournament was improved NCAA tournament seeding.
But they sure didn’t play like a complacent, locked-into-the-field group on Friday night, which helped make for a strong nightcap to a phenomenal night of games.
The Rebels jumped out to a quick 12-0 lead on the Lobos, but at no point did it look like the quick blow had done a ton of damage to New Mexico’s psyche. Steve Alford’s club instead began methodically chipping back as it ground the game down to its preferred, half-court pace and, in the final two minutes of the first half, tied things up again.
Kendall Wallace’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer before the break gave UNLV a 3-point lead, and set the stage for what would be the equivalent of a heavyweight slugfest in the final 20 minutes.
New Mexico (26-6) appeared to be pulling away late, grabbing an eight-point lead with 5:52 remaining, but UNLV then went on an 8-0 run over the next four minutes.
But the Lobos didn’t need another field goal the rest of the way.
Instead, Demetrius Walker and Kendall Williams combined to go 8-for-8 from the line. Meanwhile, after Marshall’s acrobatic 3-point play tied the game, UNLV went 0-for-5 from the floor the rest of the way.
In the bigger picture, free throws and rebounding told the bulk of the story.
New Mexico went 11-of-11 from the line in the second half, while UNLV was 13-of-18, including a pair of key misses late from Justin Hawkins and another one from Marshall.
The Lobos won the rebounding battle, 41-25, and that only turned the pressure up on the Rebels more on the offensive end. They only had six offensive boards and two second-chance points the entire night, as the Rebel bigs couldn’t do much against Drew Gordon.
Much had been made this week about Gordon feeling he’d been snubbed for MWC Player of the Year honors, which went to San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin by a landslide of a vote. Gordon played as if he had something to prove for a second straight outing against the Rebels, finishing with 19 points and 13 rebounds — all defensive.
“That’s the nature of tournament games,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said of the close contest. “That’s why we play all year long to try to limit the number of mistakes we make. It’s the team that makes the least mistakes and makes the plays down the stretch that typically win these games.”
UNLV deserved a world of credit for some things on Friday night.
Their toughness and will in games like these had been questioned some of late, but they came through with one of their grittiest efforts of the season. They also committed only three turnovers against one of the league’s most aggressive defensive squads.
• Senior forward Chace Stanback again struggled. After hitting a contested 3-pointer on the Rebels’ first possession, he was quiet, finishing with seven points and only one rebound in 17 minutes. He spent a lot of time in the second half on the bench with a frustrated look on his face. It was clear, too, that he was not at full strength on Friday night, as his lingering knee issues may be having more of an effect on him of late.
• UNLV again showed that, when sophomore forward Mike Moser isn’t rebounding at a high rate, they have a tough time controlling a game’s flow. A night after posting 22 points and 14 rebounds against Wyoming, Moser scored 11 points — off of just 5-of-15 shooting — but could only muster three rebounds in 11 minutes.
• The bench, again, didn’t provide enough. Wallace came through with a trio of momentum-building 3-pointers in the first half, but Carlos Lopez and Justin Hawkins combined to score only two points in 35 total minutes off of the pine. Meanwhile, Reggie Smith and Quintrell Thomas only played two minutes each, and neither appeared to be too happy about sitting during the hotly-contested second stanza.
The Lobos will take on San Diego State, who put together a well-rounded performance with unexpected contributions from its bench in a 79-69 victory over Colorado State earlier in the night. The Aztecs reached the title game for the fourth straight season, and will be playing for their third straight MWC tournament crown.
As for UNLV, will the loss be a blessing in disguise moving forward, as it doesn’t have to play a third game in three days and can rest up some more before the NCAA tournament begins next week?
It’s hard to say whether that’s the right or wrong way to look at it.
But at least there is an NCAA tourney game to prepare for.
That’s what Rice will remind his team of when they reconvene on Sunday to learn of their postseason draw.
“Just that there’s still so much to play for,” Rice said. “We’ve got 26 wins, we’ve had a good season and we have a chance to make it very good. We don’t have to go to sleep tonight worrying about whether we’re going to be in the tournament or not. We’ll go to sleep disappointed that we didn’t make enough plays or find a way to win the game.”
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