Photo by Josh Metz
It wasn't going to be pretty, and no one who had watched the first two meetings this season between UNLV and Wyoming thought otherwise.
But for the second time in five days, the Rebels locked down on the defensive end and were able to grind their way forward.
This time, it sets up a coveted rematch for Dave Rice's club. One it has craved since trudging up the famed ramp at The Pit in Albuquerque on the wrong end of a 20-point decision back on Feb. 18.
After downing Wyoming in an effective-yet-ugly affair on Thursday night, 56-48, UNLV advances to Friday night's semifinal round of the Mountain West Conference tournament for the third straight year. The third-seeded Rebels will tip-off against the second-seeded Lobos at 8:30 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center. That will follow a showdown between top seed San Diego State and fourth-seeded Colorado State that gets underway at 6 p.m.
"We've been wanting to face them again since the buzzer sounded in New Mexico," UNLV junior guard Anthony Marshall said.
Added sophomore forward Mike Moser: "We've had that bad taste in our mouths for a long time now."
It became pretty apparent early on Thursday night that it would be UNLV (26-7) moving forward to take on New Mexico.
Expecting another slowed down, defensive battle, the Rebels excelled on that end of the floor, holding Wyoming (20-11) to a Mountain West tournament record low 12.5 percent shooting in the game's first 20 minutes (3-of-24). A lot of it stemmed from the perimeter, where Marshall and his fellow guards hounded the Cowboys' outside shooters.
On the other end, Moser took care of everything. Well, almost everything. But it felt like everything.
As Wyoming struggled to score 11 points in the first half, Moser came out hot and scored 18 before the break, doing so in a variety of ways. Whether it was from 3-point range, mid-range or up close on drives and stick-backs, he showed that his strong performance on Saturday may have truly signaled the end of his late-season slump.
"It was tough going through of that and not playing well," he said. "One bad game led to another bad game. I've been doing this for a while, and I know one big game can get you going, and you can get it rolling from there."
But despite holding a commanding 17-point edge at the half, UNLV needed much more than Moser to hold on once a scrappy Wyoming team clawed its way back to within single digits in the game's final seven minutes.
As has been the case more times than the Rebels have preferred late in the season, it turned into a tale of two halves, as clean offensive looks became harder to come by, and that frustration bled over onto the defensive end.
"I think the thing for us was we lost our confidence a little bit on the offensive end," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "The problem was that we had guarded so well for the entire game that when we lost our confidence a little bit on the offensive end, we didn't guard with the same sort of intensity there."
But enough offense ultimately came through.
Marshall and senior point guard Oscar Bellfield remained aggressive with their repeated drives to the bucket, where trips to the foul line became the norm. And, of course, Moser helped some. He hit a turnaround bank shot from 15 feet out with 2:54 left that put UNLV up by 11 points and all but locked things up.
He finished with game-highs in points (22) and rebounds (14), while Chace Stanback, Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba each chipped in with eight points. Bellfield had five points, but also five assists, which moved him past former New Mexico guard Dairese Gary as the Mountain West's all-time assist leader.
Despite an uncharacteristic nine assists across from 14 turnovers, UNLV also forced 14 Wyoming giveaways and out-rebounded the Cowboys 41-36.
And now comes the fun part.
The last two years, the Friday night semifinal round has produced epic atmospheres and even better basketball.
Expect this year to be no different.
The matinee will feature the Aztecs and Rams, who both had to play their starters heavy minutes on Friday in respective victories over Boise State and TCU. San Diego State isn't very deep to start with, while Colorado State was without key forward Greg Smith, who sat with his right foot in a walking boot and is listed as day-to-day. By beating the Horned Frogs, many around the country believe that Colorado State may have locked up its first NCAA tournament bid since 2003, though another victory over SDSU would put it in ink. The Aztecs are on a quest to try and win their third straight conference tourney title.
The Lobos easily dispatched of Air Force in the first portion of Thursday's night session, and arguably should be the most rested of the four remaining teams come Friday, having spread the minutes around evenly throughout their rotation.
UNLV had Anthony Marshall go 36 minutes and Mike Moser 35, but also was able to get some decent wear out of its reserves.
Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez combined to eat up 15 minutes on the interior, while Justin Hawkins played 24 and Kendall Wallace seven on the perimeter. Sophomore Reggie Smith did not play for the second game due to a coach's decision, but don't be surprised to see him used on Friday when New Mexico puts diminutive reserve guard Jamal Fenton on the floor. Rice tried that strategy in Albuquerque, but it was stymied by Smith getting into quick foul trouble.
Or maybe too much is being made out of the fatigue factor.
Motivation won't be hard to find on either side.
Both UNLV and New Mexico are locks for the NCAA tournament's field of 68 and can only help their seeding with another win or two.
But a shot at a title would be nice, too.
"I could care less about all that," Moser said of the storylines lingering between the two sides. "We just want to advance and have a chance to play for a championship."