Updated: Mar 9
Needing an extra five minutes, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels ousted the Air Force Falcons in the first round of the Mountain West Basketball Championship to advance to the second day of action.
Number 7 UNLV beat No. 10 Air Force, 78-70, in overtime Wednesday, March 8 from the Thomas & Mack Center. After beating intra-state rival Nevada – Reno in overtime in the last regular season game of the year, the Rebels are now 2-2 in overtime games this season.
“Just staying together,” fifth-year guard EJ Harkless said. “That’s the biggest thing for us. Just staying together and being able to look one another in the eyes and just go out there and play super, the outcome will be in our favor if we do that.”
Head coach Kevin Kruger picked up his first Mountain West Conference Tournament win in the process.
“It just means that all the work you put in over time [paid off],” senior guard Luis Rodriguez said. “It’s just a blessing to stay alive and anything can happen in March.”
As a reward, UNLV advances to take on Boise State Thursday, March 9 from the T&M Center with tip-off set for 6 p.m. The Rebels lost both matchups during the regular season to the Broncos by 14 points and four points respectively.
“We probably wouldn’t do anything with [the team] on its feet tomorrow,” Kruger said. “But with the extra five minutes, without a doubt we won’t so it’s going to be all film and a small group meeting. It’s kind of like cramming for a test in a sense.”
Harkless poured in a career-high 35 points, accounting for nearly half of UNLV’s point total. This performance came after he was held without a field goal for the first 15 minutes of the game.
“Amazing,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been a great scorer all season. When in doubt, EJ will get a bucket. It’s good to have a player like that, we can just give him the ball especially when he’s got it going and just let him work. It’s fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”
In two games against Air Force this season, Harkless has racked up 58 points on 18-for-37 shooting.
“Every other team’s gameplan for me is to get me going downhill and fall,” Harkless said. “The difference with [the Falcons], they wall up, they’re super strong, they don’t complain at all. It’s a different mindset for me going into the game that I have to get adjusted to.”
The next highest leading scorer for the Rebels was senior guard Justin Webster, who scored 12 points including two made three-pointers.
Rodriguez posted a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds and came down with a crucial offensive rebound off a missed free throw from Harkless with the team up six and 1:11 on the clock. Soon after, the Rebels extended their lead to eight and eventually their largest lead of 10.
“It’s kind of easy when Lu has back-to-back double-doubles,” Harkless said. “He’s controlling the game and it’s something that we’ve struggled with early in the season giving the other team second chances opportunities [and] third chance opportunities. But when he’s healthy, he can rebound with anybody in the country. Anybody!”
UNLV played without sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert, who served a one-game suspension following his ejection from the regular season finale road game against UNR.
“It’s just another weapon,” Kruger said when asked about the pending return of Gilbert. “It’s a fresh body, I know he’s going to be itching to get out there. If you know Keshon at all, it’s probably going to be hard to talk to him at all until the Boise game because he’s going to be wanting to get out there so bad.”
During a stretch in the second half, UNLV made seven of eight field goals in order to take its largest lead at the time of seven points. That offensive stretch came at a needed time after the first half saw both teams shoot 35% or lower.
“[The team] clearly understood our concern as a staff about how a game with Air Force can turn into a rock-fight,” Kruger said. “It’s not going to change. [The Falcons] are going to run their stuff, they’re going to cut hard no matter what you do.”
Early in the contest, the Rebels went on a 10-0 run while holding the Falcons scoreless for more than four minutes. Air Force countered that just before halftime, holding UNLV without a point for nearly five and a half minutes.
The game featured seven ties, six of which came after the halftime break.
“What we’ve kind of struggled with all year to an extent in certain circumstances is what Air Force does really well defensively,” Kruger said. “We got really lifted, our spacing was bad and it forced a lot of situations where we took tough shots. Then the ball got to EJ kind of hoping something good would happen.”