Rebels race past Falcons, secure quarterfinal matchup against Aggies
For the first time since the 2017-18 season, the UNLV men’s basketball team has defeated an opponent three times in one season.
UNLV defeated the Air Force Falcons, 80-52, Wednesday, March 11 in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament from the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It’s challenging when you have to beat a team three times in a year,” head coach TJ Otzelberger said. “We’re lucky they’ve all been on our court.”
The Falcons were also the last team to lose to the Rebels three times in one year.
The win sends UNLV to the quarterfinals for a rubber match against Utah State.
“The more physical team will win that game tomorrow,” Otzelberger said. “And we were more physical in the first matchup and in the second game, it was certainly them. We have a lot of respect for their program, their coaches, their players.”
The Aggies will be led into battle with Mountain West Player of the Year and back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Neemias Queta.
“I feel like it’s like what coach said, ‘The more aggressive team will win the game,’” Mbacke said. “So we’re going to try everything that we can do to be the more physical team so we can come out successful tomorrow.”
Mbacke played a pivotal role in securing the first round win over Air Force, scoring six straight points when UNLV was down two.
“Well, Mbacke has done that many times for us this season,” Otzelberger said. “When we need a big play, he’s the guy that kind of turns the tide. I think for him, he has a lot of pride in this program, he has a pride in the job that he does every game and good things happen to people that look at it that way.”
With the game tied, he played the passing lane to come away with a steal, finishing it off with a slam dunk on the other end.
Mbacke finished with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds.
That was a part of a 13-0 run by the Rebels that helped UNLV build a first half lead as large as 20 points.
In the second half, the lead grew to as much as 31 points.
Junior guard David Jenkins Jr. scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half largely in part to great team ball movement.
“Well, we shared the basketball -- we had really good intent to move it,” Otzelberger said. “[Junior guard Bryce Hamilton] made some really great passes, I thought [freshman guard] Nick Blake had some great passes, [freshman forward Devin Tillis] had some in there too. It’s playing for each other, sharing the ball.”
UNLV tallied the second-most total assists as a team with 20 in the outing on 31 made field goals.
About midway through the second half, the Rebels had 18 assists on 24 made field goals.
Hamilton also scored 18 points on 8-of-13 from the field.
With under seven minutes left in the game, Air Force secured it’s 10th rebound of the game.
The biggest question coming in was could UNLV defend the three-pointer well enough to advance.
“We’ve talked quite a bit recently about our team’s inability or whatever you want to call it -- to defend the three-point line and pressure the basketball,” Otzelberger said. “Today was as fine of an effort as we’ve had in those categories all season long.”
During the two regular season games, the Falcons attempted 53 threes in the 80 total minutes and shot 45 percent from beyond the arc.
However in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament, Air Force went the entire first half without a made field goal attempt.
With 17:18 left in the second half, the Falcons made their first three-point shot.
“It’s been an Achilles heel for us all season long,” Otzelberger said. “Our ball pressure has been an issue and its allowed people to pass it too easily. Today, we were good with ball pressure.”