Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 14, 2014 | 11:45 p.m.
The chants of “This is our house” rained down from the upper bowl in the Thomas & Mack Center tonight, and after their eighth loss here this season there was little the Rebels could say about it. Their performances here have made ownership up for grabs.
With their postseason destination hinging on the outcome, UNLV came up empty in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament against No. 1 seed San Diego State. It wasn’t a rout, exactly, but by the end of the Aztecs’ 59-51 victory — completing a three-game sweep this season — there was no doubt which was the better team on the court.
Really, that was already known. The Aztecs (29-3) are in the top 10 for a reason. This one just came with the finality that the Rebels (20-13) will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
“The thing I’m proud of is we always bounced back from adversity,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said of his third season. “The thing I’m disappointed in is that there was so much adversity we had to bounce back from.”
The Rebels will probably have a chance to play somewhere in the postseason. If they even want to go, that is.
The NIT selects its field following the NCAA Tournament selection Sunday night, while the CBI and CIT fill out their brackets after that. The latter two require schools to pay to host games and carry a stigma that schools with some pedigree often don’t want attached to their program.
That’s a decision that UNLV will make in the coming days, Rice said, after he meets with Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy on Saturday.
“We’ve got to take a look at our options and make the best decision for the guys in our program,” he said, adding that this group always wants to play and to compete.
UNLV had pinned its hopes on a run through the Mountain West tournament that would give the Rebels a fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. It certainly seemed possible when UNLV opened tonight’s game up 7-0 with junior forward Khem Birch limping around much less than he had during Thursday’s quarterfinal victory against Wyoming.
“He did as much as he can for us,” said Roscoe Smith. “We definitely just tried to follow his lead, with his effort.”
Birch finished with six points, 15 rebounds, five blocks and three assists, while Deville Smith led the scoring with 17 points, though he also had five turnovers.
San Diego State eventually got into a rhythm and took a five-point lead into halftime largely because of offensive rebounds (seven second-chance points) and 9-for-10 shooting at the free-throw line.
The Rebels again came out strong to start the second half and were in good position, down 33-31 with 16:20 remaining. That’s when everything fell apart.
The Aztecs went on a 15-2 run while the Rebels committed three turnovers and went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal, shooting 0-for-7 over that stretch. Roscoe Smith said the Rebels got good shots that simply didn’t fall during that run. However, most of them were off-balance or contested as the Aztecs successfully did what they’ve been able to do to most teams at that end of the floor.
League Player of the Year Xavier Thames finished with 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting and six assists to one turnover while Sixth Man of the Year Dwayne Polee II scored 18 and served as the Aztecs’ closer. Polee hit a 3-pointer midway through the second half that pulled UNLV out of its zone defense after two possessions and then hit four consecutive free throws in the final minute that kept the game at two possessions.
“He had some huge plays for us tonight at both ends of the floor,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said of Polee, who also had a steal in the final minute. “He allows his athleticism to show and he makes timely shots for us.”
Once the game ended, the Rebels left the court and headed toward the locker room, where several people said players could be heard yelling at each other. Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was suspended last week after a quick exit following UNLV’s last loss to the Aztecs, wasn’t in the locker room by the time it was opened to the media.
He’s one of several players with remaining eligibility, including Birch and Roscoe Smith, who will decide in the near future whether they want to spend another year in the Rebels’ program. None have great NBA Draft prospects right now, but there’s a feeling that not all of them, plus one or two guys down the bench, will move on.
“I’m 100 percent just trying to get better, just being with my brothers as a team,” Roscoe Smith said. “I never even thought about that.”
Rice said that from the day the season ends, whether that was today or sometime in the near future, every day has to be devoted to instilling an ethic that has oftentimes lacked during his tenure.
“Guys have to understand that everything we do on the court, in the classroom and off the court has to be for the sake of building our Runnin’ Rebel brand,” he said. “It takes time to build that.”
This season certainly didn’t go the way the Rebels had hoped, especially at home. Technically, UNLV lost here nine times this year, but the exhibition defeat to Division II Dixie State doesn’t go down in the record books.
It’s easy now to look back at that game and see all of the warning signs. UNLV missed 14 free throws in that game and failed to execute late in a close game, two issues that plagued them all season.
The fact that those things happened on Nov. 1 isn’t really an issue. The problem is they kept happening, and while there was clear development in certain players or areas of the game it wasn’t enough to fulfill the expectations inside or outside the program.
The incoming recruiting class, which may include former San Francisco senior guard Cody Doolin if the NCAA grants an upcoming waiver request, will have a lot to do with that moving forward. Just as important is how Rice and his staff develop, and which current players return.
“We’re going to figure out the guys — and it’s not a threat, it’s not a leading statement — we’re just going to figure out the guys who truly want to be here and give us the best opportunity and chance to win moving forward,” Rice said.