UNLV went cold at the wrong time and ended up dropping an overtime contest subsequently being eliminated from the Mountain West Championship.
Playing in their third straight overtime game, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels lost to the Boise State Broncos, 87-76, Thursday, March 9 from the Thomas & Mack Center in the quarterfinals of the MWC.
“Boise came out and punched us in the mouth,” head coach Kevin Kruger said. “I thought the second half was certainly the representation that the team deserves to be remembered by. Just by how hard they fought and by how hard they competed.”
This season, the Rebels went 2-3 in overtime games and had one two straight prior to this outcome including a first round win over the Air Force Falcons.
“In those types of games, I don’t think you really feel it,” senior guard Justin Webster said. “The adrenaline is pumping and you’re so into the game that the only thing you’re worried about is trying to get a win. I feel it now, I can’t lie to you.”
UNLV has been eliminated in the quarterfinals or earlier in each of the last eight seasons including two times by Boise State in the last four seasons.
“Just keep working,” Kruger said. “We’ve got a great group of guys that work and a coaching group that works at it. You’ve got to believe in it and just continue to be in the gym, talking to them and getting better everyday.”
This year’s Rebel team closes the year with a 19-13 overall record, one game better than last year’s squad, despite opening the year 10-0. In two seasons as lead man for his alma mater, Kruger has posted a combined record of 37-27.
“I still think there’s a lot of great that can come from this year,” Kruger said. “A lot of good things have been established, it’s just one of those things where we’ll just keep working. I still think we’re better off than we were a year ago at this time. I guess, we’ll just take that one as our starting point going into the spring.”
Even though he’s played his last game as a Runnin’ Rebel, fifth-year guard EJ Harkless has high hopes for Kruger and the program moving forward.
“One hundred percent,” Harkless said when asked about his confidence in the program moving forward. “As long as people can stay with coach, a lot of people have better opportunities.”
When it mattered most, UNLV went without a point for more than half of the five-minute overtime period. In addition, the team went without a field goal for more than four minutes.
With less than a minute and a half left in regulation and the team down five, Harkless was whistled for an intentional foul as he was attempting to initiate a held ball. That was his fifth and disqualifying foul and had to be held back by members of the Rebels’ bench after voicing his displeasure. He was swiftly given a technical for his outburst.
Harkless had trouble getting off a shot attempt in the closing moments of the second half with the team down two and less than 15 seconds on the clock. Moments after crossing the halfcourt line, Harkless slipped while making a move toward the basket, losing the ball in the process.
He finished with 18 points on 7-of-18 from the field to go along with six rebounds and seven assists.
The biggest shot of the game for UNLV came in the form of a corner three from sophomore guard Shane Nowell with one second left in the second half. That went down as one of his two made threes on the night.
“He’s been listening to coach everyday in practice,” Harkless said. “Now he’s gotten his opportunity in games toward the end of the season and his progression has been crazy. I can say that about every freshman and sophomore.”
Nowell’s shot meant the double-digit comeback was complete for the Rebels, battling back from a 22-point first half deficit. UNLV didn’t hold its first lead of the game until the 4:04-mark of the second half.
Ultimately, three-point shooting ended up being too much to overcome as Boise State rattled off 30 points from deep in the first half on 10-for-14 shooting. At one point of the first half with the Broncos up 17 points, the Thomas & Mack Center filled with a “Boise! State!” chant.
Opponents have made 10 or more three-pointers in eight of the 13 losses this season by UNLV.
At halftime, the Rebels found themselves down 16 points.
“Just stay together,” Harkless said of the halftime speech. “Don’t let that first half define us, we’ve been hit with a lot of adversity this year. Injuries and everything, we didn’t let it define us and we always fought back.”
UNLV limited the three-point prowess of Boise State in the second half to the tune of 2-for-13 while flipping the script and going 8-for-14 on the other end. By the end of regulation, the Rebels had racked up one more made three than its opponent, ending the night with 14.
“Coach always talks about being stubborn about getting the shots that we want,” Harkless said. “We’re a really good shooting team but sometimes we get a little greedy. But it was just us being stubborn in the second half knowing that this might be our last shot.”
The comeback trail was littered with made threes as senior guard Jordan McCabe nailed a three to cut the once 22-point lead to single-digits. McCabe finished with 10 points and two made threes.
Webster connected on a pair of threes more than halfway through the second half to trim the Boise State lead to two points and then one point.
On his way to 18 points on the night, Webster hit three of his five made three-pointers in the second half. With one more year of eligibility available, Webster is unsure of what his future holds.
“It’s just something I have to talk to my family about to decide what my future is,” he said. “Whether it’s going to be here or [if] I take another route but it’s something that I’m going to think about.”
Sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert returned to the lineup, getting his first action since serving a one-game suspension in a reserve role. He recorded seven points on the night including five straight points early in the first half to get the offense rolling for UNLV.