Rebels vs Cowboys

Steve Marcus

UNLV head coach Kevin Kruger questions a call during the second half of an NCAA basketball game against Wyoming at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. STEVE MARCUS

Reno — 

UNLV went into Saturday’s season finale in Reno with championship hopes, but after falling at UNR, 75-65, the Scarlet and Gray will have to settle for a fourth-place finish and chance to earn their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning three games in three days.

Both UNLV and UNR came into the night tied for second place in the Mountain West standings at 12-5, one game behind Utah State (13-5). When Utah State defeated New Mexico, 87-85, just moments before tipoff in Reno, it clinched the Mountain West regular season title for the Aggies and relegated the UNLV-UNR game to a battle for bragging rights, instead of a potential championship bout.

With that as the backdrop, UNR opened a quick double-digit lead in front of a sold-out crowd. Though UNLV climbed back in front midway through the second half, the Wolf Pack were able to pull away down the stretch for a comfortable win, led by 26 points from guard Jarod Lucas.

UNLV finishes the regular season 19-11 overall and 12-6 in conference play. The Scarlet and Gray will face No. 5 seed San Diego State in the second round of the MWC tournament on Thursday, just nine days after beating the Aztecs, 62-58, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

If UNLV is able to survive that game, the semifinal opponent would likely be No. 1 Utah State, which needed a miracle 5-point play to defeat UNLV back in January.

All things considered, it’s not a bad spot to be in, as senior wing Keylan Boone affirmed after the game.

“We feel good,” Boone said. “At the end of the day, neutral site at our crib, we’ve just got to keep playing. Have a good couple days of practice, find ways to stay resilient, stay coachable.”

The Scarlet and Gray had won five straight games and 10 of their last 11 heading into Saturday’s finale, and that extended stretch of success was largely powered by the defense. But UNR had little trouble generating open shots and converting, as the Pack shot better than 50% in both halves and landed at 52.2% for the night.

UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said his guys were out of position too often, chasing the ball instead of dictating the action.

“It’s been a while for us since we allowed a team to kind of do whatever they wanted offensively,” Kruger said. “We were just kind of a step behind.”

UNLV trailed by as many as 12 points, but Boone got hot in the second half and got his team back into the game. He hit two 3-pointers in quick succession, and he nailed a third triple to cap a 13-2 run that put UNLV ahead, 48-47, with 12 minutes remaining.

UNR called timeout and immediately countered with an 11-2 run of its own to regain control. UNLV was not able to mount another rally after that, which Kruger attributed to running out of gas.

“As we all know, it’s a game of runs, but if you’re just clawing back from double digits for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, it’s tough to sustain that energy throughout,” Kruger said.

Boone finished with six 3-pointers and 24 points. D.J. Thomas had 23 points and three assists.

Now attention turns to the Mountain West tournament. UNLV will need to win the league’s automatic bid in order to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, and the recent stretch of outstanding play has made it seem like cutting down the nets is a real possibility.

It won’t be an easy path. Boone and his teammates know it’s going to take a return to their roots as a tough defensive team in order to make their March dreams a reality.

“We’ve just got to keep digging out these games, especially when they’re rough,” he said. “We haven’t had a game like this where we just didn’t dig it out. Every other game we’ve been digging it out, so this one hurts. But we’ve got to keep on finding ways.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.


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