Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Friday, March 14, 2014 | 5 p.m.
Updated Friday, March 14, 2014 | 8:17 p.m.
San Diego State 59, UNLV 51
Xavier Thames scored 17 points, Dwayne Polee hit late free throws to finish with 18 points and No. 1 seed San Diego State (29-3) is on to Saturday's finals with a 59-51 victory against UNLV (20-13) in today's semifinals. The Rebels will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first since 2009.
Deville Smith finished with 17 points and Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 10 in what may be his final game at the Thomas & Mack Center. That's true of several players who will have decisions to make, including injured forward Khem Birch, who had six points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
UNLV opened the game on a 7-0 run but it was mostly San Diego State after that. The Aztecs led by five at halftime and after a good start to the second half by the Rebels, SDSU took over for good with a 15-2 run that put things out of reach.
Every time the Rebels attempted to stop the bleeding, they screwed something up. UNLV committed two turnovers out of timeouts that were designed to get the team to regroup. The Rebels also went without a made field goal for a long stretch because the only attempts they could muster were wild tosses towards the rim.
UNLV shot 41.3 percent from the field while SDSU hit 36.4 percent. However, the Aztecs attempted nine more shots and hit 14-of-17 free throws, while the Rebels were only 8-for-13.
The Rebels' future is uncertain. They're on the fringe of the NIT, so they could end up there or in the lower CIT or CBI tournaments. Those latter tournaments require schools to buy the games, which may not be financially sound for UNLV since it would likely struggle to get fans to show up for one of those home games.
The best outcome may actually be a road game in the NIT. UNLV will find out if it made that tournament Sunday night after the selection show for the NCAA Tournament.
Check lasvegassun.com later tonight for a full report from the Rebels' defeat.
What do you get when you add the Mountain West’s four best teams with the three most passionate fan bases and dump them all in the same arena? Friday night semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center. This is going to be fun.
Semifinal night in the Mountain West tournament has consistently been one of the best environments you could find anywhere in the league all season. And it’s only better when we get the best teams (sorry, UNR), including Round 3 of UNLV-San Diego State.
The No. 4 seed Rebels (20-12) and No. 1 seed Aztecs (28-3) tip off at 6 p.m. with No. 2 seed New Mexico and No. 6 seed Boise State to follow at approximately 8:30. Both games are on CBS Sports Network.
These are the teams picked to finish first through fourth in the preseason poll. And while the Broncos and Rebels have had their struggles in conference play, there’s no question that these are the four best teams right now. The cream has risen to the top, and now it’s up to the two lower seeds to try to pull the upsets as both are about 5-point underdogs.
The Rebels’ main concern is junior forward Khem Birch's health. This is the matchup they wanted, and, recent evidence aside, they believe they can win. But the only way they can do that is with some production from Birch, who’s dealing with a hip flexor injury that clearly causes him a lot of pain.
Birch ended up playing all but one minute of the second half Thursday, in part because UNLV coach Dave Rice said that sitting him doesn’t really help. Birch’s hip may actually tighten up while sitting on the bench, making it even more difficult and/or painful when he steps back out on the court.
Birch is expected to be a game-time decision tonight. I think he’ll play, but how much and how effective he can be is a complete unknown.
When these teams met at the Mack a little more than a week ago, UNLV led by one with about three and a half minutes left. Then everything went wrong.
Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard went on a tear while the Rebels went silent. Well, at least quiet on the court. Bryce Dejean-Jones was pulled in the final two minutes and was seen yelling on the bench. After the game he quickly left the arena and was suspended for his actions, a punishment he just returned from in the Rebels’ quarterfinal victory against Wyoming.
And it was in the second half of that game that Birch started to feel pain in his hip. It wasn’t a collision or anything, Birch said, he just noticed it was harder to move around and since then he’s been dealing with the pain.
The other key difference in that game is that the Rebels were without junior forward Roscoe Smith, who provided an emotional lift Thursday and also had 18 points and 13 rebounds. Smith had missed two games with a concussion, and while his defense is often suspect — the Aztecs consistently attacked him with success at Viejas Arena — UNLV clearly needed him against the Cowboys.
The Rebels will need a lot of things to go right in order to reach Saturday’s final. However, most of that is in their control. From shot selection, to defensive rotation, to making free throws, UNLV can do a lot to help itself out. The question is whether the Rebels are capable of following through in such a crucial game.
Bern’s prediction: I always figured I’d pick San Diego State if we got this Friday night matchup. And after watching UNLV’s quarterfinal game — nearly blowing the double-digit lead in the final two minutes and also the awful first-half offense — there’s no doubt in my mind. Obviously it’s not impossible for the Rebels to pull the upset, but there’s no way I’d bet on it. San Diego State 75, UNLV 67
Season: ATS 19-13, O/U 23-7-2