Thursday, March 5, 2020 | 5:32 p.m.
An avalanche of missed 3-pointers, missed layups and missed free throws brought UNLV’s season to an end on Thursday, as Boise State scraped by the Rebels in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament, 67-61.
How badly did UNLV struggle offensively? Junior guard Amauri Hardy airballed one 3-pointer, wedged another between the rim and backboard, and airballed a critical free throw — and still finished as UNLV’s second-leading scorer.
And that’s not to single out Hardy, who persevered to give UNLV 14 important points in 38 minutes of playing time. The woes extended to every Rebel in some way, and the efficient offensive machine that powered UNLV down the stretch of the season went completely off the rails when the stakes were highest.
The most important element was the absence of senior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, who had emerged as the Rebels’ best all-around player late in the season. His knee contusion kept him from suiting up against Boise, and Broncos’ coach Leon Rice responded by packing in his defense, jamming up the paint and daring UNLV to win with outside shots.
The Rebels missed 10 of 14 from long distance in the first half and shot 29.6 percent overall, and Boise State was able to build a double-digit lead early in the second half.
UNLV tried to dig out of the hole by sheer force of will, and the Rebels held up well on the defensive end. But the smoke-and-mirrors act simply did not work against BSU’s packed-in defense.
Bryce Hamilton scored a team-high 24 points but needed 22 shots to get there (7-of-22). Marvin Coleman finished with five points and four turnovers in 36 minutes. Jay Green had two points, two turnovers and four fouls in 17 minutes. It wasn’t pretty.
Jonah Antonio started in place of Mitrou-Long and did not make his presence felt for the first 35 minutes, but he hit three 3-pointers in succession to help pull UNLV within two points late in the second half. But Boise State made its free throws, and UNLV will head into the offseason sooner than expected.
Though the overall record may not seem impressive (17-15), the Rebels improved over the course of the season and looked like the best team in the Mountain West in February — until Mitrou-Long crumpled to the floor against San Jose State.
Head coach T.J. Otzelberger took a big-picture perspective after the game, but you got the feeling he was still lamenting what could have been.
“Our guys were really together at the end of the year,” Otzelberger said. “We were playing not only our best basketball, we were playing as well as pretty much anybody in the Mountain West toward the end of the season. We caught an unfortunate break with one of the key members of our team; he wasn’t able to play for us today. It’s certainly not an excuse because all year long we’ve had injuries and adversity and we’ve bounced back from whatever situation presented itself.”
R.J. Williams posted 23 points and 15 rebounds to lead Boise State, while guard Justinian Jessup tallied 19 points. The Broncos helped UNLV hang around by shooting 3-of-15 from 3-point range (Jessup went 3-of-6 and the rest of the squad was 0-of-9).
UNLV had one opportunity to tie or take the lead in the second half. Trailing by two points with two minutes to play, Hamilton drove into the lane and pulled up for a short jump shot — the kind of shot he has been making reliably all season long. But with multiple Boise defenders contesting the attempt, Hamilton left it short and the Broncos came up with the rebound.
Just like that, the Rebels’ season evaporated. And while next season’s Rebels figure to look much different — an incoming class of eight recruits means more than half the roster will turn over — Otzelberger wants the team to maintain the ideals that made them fleeting contenders this year.
“We’re looking for winners,” Otzelberger said of the recruits and the current Rebels who will return to the program in 2020-21. “We’re looking for work capacity. We’re looking for character. Guys that are going to come every day and lay it on the line.
“There are some guys that shoot better,” he continued, “some guys that are taller, some guys run faster. All that stuff is important. The intangible qualities and the character are really what’s the most important to us.”