In an angry outburst, UNLV junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones turned to the crowd and shouted as he jogged down the court.
“They can’t (bleeping) stop me,” he said, after hitting a baseline jumper early in the second half Thursday.
A week after being suspended from the team for an emotional blowup following a loss, Dejean-Jones played with enough anger to help ensure the Rebels did not lose at the Thomas & Mack Center yet again.
In his return, Dejean-Jones came off the bench to score 22 points, and UNLV held off a furious last-minute charge to defeat Wyoming 71-67 in a Mountain West tournament quarterfinal.
Junior forward Roscoe Smith, also in a reserve role after coming back from a concussion, finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds as the Rebels relied on two former starters to rescue them.
“I told Bryce, ‘Let’s just be aggressive and lift the team up by any means.’ I felt like we both brought that,” said Smith, who had been sidelined since March 1.
Fourth-seeded UNLV (20-12) advanced to face top-seeded San Diego State (28-3) in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. today. The morning after the Rebels’ second regular-season loss to the Aztecs on March 5, coach Dave Rice suspended Dejean-Jones for conduct detrimental to the team. The team’s leading scorer was reinstated Monday.
“I just was sort of hoping that (Dejean)-Jones hadn’t made up with Coach,” Cowboys coach Larry Shyatt said. “We were the underdog, obviously, and that helped. That gave us some energy.”
Josh Adams scored 24 points for fifth-seeded Wyoming (18-14), and in the first half, he was the only unstoppable guard on the floor.
The score was tied at 44 with 9½ minutes remaining when Dejean-Jones led the Rebels on a 14-3 run. He scored seven points to create a 58-47 cushion that must have felt too comfortable.
“Things just started happening for us,” said Dejean-Jones, who shot 9-for-17 from the field, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range. “We basically played together and kept getting stops.”
Deville Smith’s 3-pointer extended UNLV’s lead to 61-48 with 3:15 to go, but the Cowboys immediately started cutting into their deficit. Jerron Granberry and Nathan Sobey each hit a 3, and Granberry’s layup and three-point play made it a one-point game with 23 seconds remaining.
Deville Smith made two free throws for the Rebels, and Sobey missed a 3-point try to tie for Wyoming. Khem Birch grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to stretch UNLV’s lead to five points with 13.7 seconds to go.
Birch, wincing in pain with a left hip flexor injury, struggled at times to run the floor. The junior forward finished with eight points and nine rebounds in 34 minutes, but his physical status is problematic for a team that needs to win today and Saturday to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a huge challenge if we can’t have Khem in our lineup,” Rice said. “Until told differently, I anticipate he’ll be able to play.”
Sobey had 18 points and Granberry also scored 18, all in the second half, for the Cowboys, who were without injured leading scorer Larry Nance Jr.
“We don’t have a superstar,” said Adams, whose 18 first-half points put Wyoming in position to pull off an upset. “So many people around the country, even back home, said we’re done when we lost Larry. That’s not the case. We knew we would come out and be in a dogfight. We knew it was going to come down to the wire. That’s just the way we play.”
Adams accounted for the Cowboys’ first 11 points, and a dunk by Sobey put UNLV in a 13-7 hole after nine minutes. Dejean-Jones’ responded with back-to-back 3s, and his 15-foot jumper at the buzzer put the Rebels ahead 28-27 at halftime.
Shyatt’s strategy to use a triangle-and-two and a combination of zone defenses threw off the Rebels, who hoisted several ill-advised and rushed shots and went 11-for-31 from the field in the first half.
“It was kind of something new that we hadn’t really seen before,” Dejean-Jones said of Wyoming’s defensive scheme.
UNLV displayed better ball movement after the half and ran Dejean-Jones off screens to make plays. He made enough to get a third shot at San Diego State, which won the teams’ previous meetings by 11 and nine points.
“Losing never goes well with me, nor does it with the team,” Dejean-Jones said. “We understand we have a tough challenge coming up, but we’re ready for it.”
The Rebels improved to 13-1 all time in the MW tournament quarterfinals, but not without a sweat.
“I’ve always said that Friday night in the Mountain West is an electric atmosphere,” Rice said. “We’re excited to be part of it.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.