Rebels bounced from MW Championship in quarterfinals for 8th straight year
The run of not making it to the semifinals of the Mountain West Championship continued as UNLV dropped a close one in heartbreaking fashion.
The Runnin’ Rebels lost, 59-56, to the Wyoming Cowboys Thursday, March 10 in the quarterfinals of the MW Championship from the Thomas & Mack Center.
To this point, UNLV held a 12-4 record inside the building.
“I mean, it hurts,” senior guard Bryce Hamilton said. “We played so hard. We fought all year, especially this game. We were down 13 in the first half, we didn’t start off great. But we fought to the end, [came] back to be able to get the lead.”
The last time the program made it out of the quarterfinals in the conference tournament was 2014.
“Well, losing is difficult,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “Anytime you lose, it's difficult. We just get better. We just keep working and stay after it. But, again, if we can have the fight and the starting point from where we finished right now and that group that's coming back to kind of use that and use that feeling, you know, I think we can carry that over into the summer workouts and on into the fall and into next season.”
Kruger was very adamant that his team would love the opportunity to play in a postseason tournament were it to get an invite.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “And I would really hope that who’s deciding on the NIT would take into account how much this team has gotten better and come together over the last month or so – or couple months.”
Just eight days ago, UNLV beat Wyoming in its Senior Night by seven.
In addition, the Cowboys had lost 19 straight to the Rebels inside the T&M.
“We came out a little stagnant,” Kruger said. “But just never stopped fighting. There was never a hint that we weren’t going to fight, [we] weren't going to compete. There was a sense of still security and confidence on the sideline.”
Wyoming moves on to face Boise State in the semifinals.
Hamilton had a chance as he took a couple of steps past half-court and rose for a three-point shot that clanked off the backboard and then the front of the rim as time expired.
Just moments before, down one, the Cowboy defense forced the ball out of Hamilton’s hands forcing someone else to make a play.
“We knew the play was a draw for me to get a ghost-screen and be able to make a play,” Hamilton said. “But they started to trap me. They forced me to be able to make a pass and that’s where, from there, we just had to play ball.”
Freshman guard Keshon Gilbert would be left open as a result of the commitment to Hamilton, however he would miss his corner three attempt.
“Keshon is confident,” Kruger said. “I know he’ll be in the gym and continue to work on it. First and foremost, we just wanted him to know how proud we are of him and everybody for even being in this situation where we had a good defensive stop.
“[Wyoming guard] Xavier DuSell hits a big shot and then we had a chance to win it. You know, how much more can you ask for against a team like Wyoming?”
The game featured three ties and seven lead changes.
Hamilton scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half after being doubled for most of the first half.
“In the first half, we were using a lot more ball screens,” he said. “So we noticed after the ball screen, they would trap us. We made an adjustment in the second half, kind of just doing the ghost screen, where we don’t actually screen.”
Hamilton did not score his first points of the game until almost 12 and a half minutes into the first half.
That same half saw UNLV go without a field goal for nearly 12 minutes.
“I think this is a great opportunity for that group, of course, all of them coming back to kind of recognize that we've got to give Wyoming credit,” Kruger said. “You know, they had us a little on our heels. And it's a great opportunity for, especially, a guy like Keshon, you know, to -- how the ball's got to move. How we've got to just reverse. We don't need to dribble, stand, or hold it, hope somebody else does something.”
The Cowboys were able to build a lead as large as 13 points during the first 20 minutes.
Junior forward Donovan Williams kept the Rebels afloat in the first half scoring 11 of his 20 points during that time.
He would help spark a 10-4 first half run where UNLV was able to cut the deficit to six.
That deficit would eventually get cut down to one in the second half on an 8-0 run that spanned 1:07.
After the game, fifth-year forward Royce Hamm Jr. pointed to the team’s defense as the catalyst during that stretch.
“I think guys were just really locked in,” he said. “I think defense is the one thing as a team that we focus on day-in and day-out. And I think coach really emphasized the intent of defense of putting your chest [out] and drawing a line in the sand in the post.”
Two free throws from Williams gave UNLV it’s first lead since 2-0 to start the game.
Wyoming big man Graham Ike was a handful all night forcing multiple Rebel players into foul trouble.
“Personally, I think he’s a good player,” Hamm Jr. said. “But I think if you make him finish over you instead of [going around you], it’s a better situation for us.”
Junior center David Muoka got the start alongside Hamm Jr. with no junior forward Victor Iwuakor available.
Muoka picked up three fouls in his first five minutes of action on the floor.
Hamm Jr. would also have five by the end of the contest.
UNLV finished the game -16 in the rebound category.