Boise State ousts UNLV in Mountain West Tournament

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You knew payback was coming, and sure enough, Boise State wasn’t going to let the opportunity for revenge slip through its collective grasp.

The Broncos had been spanked by UNLV a week ago, 77-66, at the Thomas & Mack Center. They certainly remembered and they got even with the Rebels on that same floor, this time in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

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With R.J. Williams a beast inside and Justinian Jessup delivering some big shots late, Boise State advanced to Friday’s semifinals to face top-seeded San Diego State with a 67-61 win over the Rebels in front of 8,189.

The Aztecs rallied from a sluggish first half to oust Air Force, 73-60. The other semifinal will pit the winner of Thursday’s New Mexico-Utah State and the survivor of the Wyoming-Nevada quarterfinal.

“Our guys we really together at the end of the year,” said T.J. Otzelberger, who went 17-15 in his first season as UNLV’s head coach. “We were playing not only our best basketball but playing as well as pretty much anybody in the Mountain West.

“We caught an unfortunate break with one of our key members of our team who wasn’t able to play for us. It’s certainly not an excuse because all year long we’ve had injuries and adversity and we’ve bounced back from whatever situation presented itself.”

The Rebels were without senior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, who injured h is knee last Saturday against San Jose State and was unable to go Thursday. It forced Otzelberger to juggle things and adjust his “small ball” lineup which had been so effective in recent weeks during UNLV’s five-game winning streak heading into the conference tournament. 

He was certainly missed. But his absence wasn’t the reason the Rebels’ season ended. Another shoddy free-throw performance combined with some erratic shooting from the floor and a failure to contain Jessup down the stretch were what did Otzelberger’s guys in. 

The Rebels, who were down by as many as 11, cut it to two on a couple of occasions in the second half. But with their two top scorers on the floor — Bryce Hamilton (24 points) and Amauri Hardy (14 points) — constantly misfiring, they were never able to get over the hump. The duo were a combined 11 of 34 from the floor (Hamilton was just 7 of 22) with Hardy just 1 for 6 from the 3-point arc. Jonah Antonio heated up in the second half and finished with 13 points, but he was unable to be the hero.

And has been the case so often this season, UNLV faltered at the free-throw line. Thursday, it shot just 61.5 percent (16 of 26) from the line. They came into the game shooting 69 percent for the season from the stripe. But they were below their average for the sixth time in their final seven games.

Conversely, Jessup delivered for the Broncos late, both from the field and from the line. He had seven of Boise State’s final nine points, including four free throws as part of a 6-for-6 performance from the stripe, and finished with 19.

The other star was Williams. The 6-foot-7 senior power forward was simply too much for UNLV’s smaller lineup to deal with as he dominated inside and finished with a 23 points and 15 rebounds.

“It made me want to play harder for my teammates, to be there on the floor and help the team out wherever I could,” said Williams, who had fouled out in last week’s loss to UNLV.  

Boise State (20-11) now turns its attention to the Aztecs (29-1), who are ranked No. 5 in the nation and are playing for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament later this month, used an 21-3 run in the second half to take control after Air Force had hung around thanks to some hot outside shooting.

“We have been good in the second half defensively all year and today was no exception,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “We upped our intensity and we guarded the ball harder and found a way to get out of here with a victory.”

Jordan Schakel led San Diego State with 17 points on the strength of five made 2-pointers. Malachi Flynn and Yanni Wetzell added 16 apiece as the Aztecs continue their quest to run the table in Vegas and land on the coveted top line when the NCAA awards its bids a week from Sunday. San Diego State handled the Broncos with ease in the two regular-season meetings, winning 83-65 at Viejas Arena and 72-55 at Boise. 

“It’s been an impressive, impressive team,” Broncos coach Leon Rice said of San Diego State. “But our guys want to keep playing and they want to keep competing and we’ve got a huge challenge.”

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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