Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 16, 2013 | 12:40 a.m.
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- BLOG: UNLV beats Colorado State, 75-65, in advancing to Mountain West Conference finals
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Those are the words UNLV coach Dave Rice said he wrote on the board in the team’s locker room prior to and at halftime of the Mountain West tournament semifinal between the Rebels and Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center. They’re terms that haven’t always fit UNLV this season but they couldn’t have been more appropriate Friday night as the Rebels (25-8) overcame foul trouble and a giant performance from Rams giant Colton Iverson to pull out a 75-65 victory.
“Tonight was the epitome of needing everybody,” said Rice, whose team will meet New Mexico (28-5) in the tournament final Saturday at 3 p.m. on CBS. At the end of Friday’s games there were approximately 2,000 tickets left for Saturday’s final, with some lower bowl seats going for $150-200 on the secondary market.
The Lobos advanced to their second straight title game with a 10-point victory against San Diego State (22-10) in the first semifinal game.
The Rebels’ game figured to feature an interior battle between Iverson and UNLV’s Khem Birch but it never happened because of Birch’s foul trouble. The Rebel big man played only 10 minutes, creating a lineup hole filled mostly by Quintrell Thomas and Savon Goodman.
Neither of those guys got off the bench in UNLV’s quarterfinal victory against Air Force but they were huge for the Rebels against CSU (25-8), combining for nine points, 10 rebounds and some crucial defense in 35 combined minutes.
“Our depth won out in the end,” Rice said.
With UNLV up two in the first half, Bennett went on a personal 11-3 run that included three consecutive 3-pointers. On the last one, which looked like a heat check, fans at home could see on the replay Bennett yell something about his personal ownership of the playing surface. After tallying 42 points on 16-for-22 shooting in two tournament games, who’s to argue with him?
“He’s as good a player as there is in the country,” Rice said.
Then there was fellow freshman Reinhardt, who scored a career-high 21 points just two days after shooting 1-for-10. His outside shooting is the main reason UNLV went into halftime with a lead because Iverson, who finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds, was doing whatever he wanted in the paint.
The Rams’ dominance inside and on the glass wasn’t enough to offset the Rebels’ shooting in the first half and UNLV made up for its 0-for-6 three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes by driving into the lane and making good decisions. Bennett didn’t take a shot in the first 13 minutes of the second half partly because he was in and out of the game with foul trouble and also because guys like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Anthony Marshall were there to take advantage of the extra attention Bennett was getting.
“I didn’t really need the ball because my teammates were on fire,” Bennett said. “Every time I got the ball I tried to look for them.”
CSU’s Dorian Green (ankle) ended up starting and played well but he reinjured himself with 9:04 remaining and didn’t return. That hurt down the stretch for the Rams, who cut the deficit to three with 5:24 remaining and then didn’t score another point until the final minute when the outcome was already decided.
Saturday’s title game is shaping up to be everything this conference deserved for its final contest. The two tournament betting favorites will meet for the sixth time in the last two years with the Lobos holding a 3-2 advantage, including last year’s tournament semifinal victory.
On one side is New Mexico, featuring conference player of the year Kendall Williams and first-team big man Alex Kirk. The league’s coach of the year, Steve Alford, probably the most vocal opponent to playing this tournament in UNLV’s home arena, will assuredly bust out his red jacket with his sights on cutting down and then wearing the net a second straight year.
On the other side is UNLV, featuring the hottest player in the tournament (Bennett) and a confident bench that knows it can step up if necessary. The two most vocal fan bases in the tourney’s first two rounds will pack the Mack for a finale befitting the Mountain West’s stellar season.
The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament although both teams are squarely in the field already. Seeding could be on the line but Saturday’s showdown is more about momentum and building toward something.
To put it another way, it’s about two words.
“If we stay tough and together,” Rice said, “we’ve got a chance.”