Following the lead of freshmen Katin Reinhardt and Anthony Bennett, UNLV overcame a large obstacle and took down a team with an all-senior starting lineup.
Reinhardt scored a career-high 21 points, and Bennett finished with 19 to carry the third-seeded Rebels to a 75-65 victory over No. 2 Colorado State in a Mountain West tournament semifinal Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Senior guard Anthony Marshall added 12 points as UNLV (25-8) won for the seventh time in eight games.
Colton Iverson kept the Rams (25-8) in it by use of brute force, as the 6-foot-10-inch center totaled 24 points and 16 rebounds. Wes Eikmeier added 13 points.
The Rebels advanced to play top-seeded New Mexico (28-5) in the championship at 3 p.m. today. The Lobos eliminated San Diego State, 60-50.
New Mexico and UNLV faced off to open the conference season on Jan. 9 in Albuquerque, where the Lobos won, 65-60. The Rebels won the rematch 64-55 on Feb. 9 in Las Vegas, and the rubber match will determine the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“Every time we play them it’s a real battle,” Bennett said, “and it’s going to be a battle again to see who’s best.”
The Rebels made 7 of 18 3-pointers and 26 of 35 free throws, but they failed to hit a 3 after Reinhardt and Bennett got hot in the first half.
Reinhardt emerged from his deepest shooting slump of the season. In the previous two games, he shot 2-for-18, including 1-for-10 on 3s. All of that was a distant memory by halftime, when a pair of freshmen carried the Rebels to a 42-36 lead.
“The 3-point shot fell for us,” said Reinhardt, who had 16 points at the half. “Anytime I had an open look, I shot it.”
UNLV connected on 7 of 12 3s in the first 20 minutes, with Reinhardt hitting 4 of 5 and Bennett 3 of 4. In one electrifying minute, Bennett made three consecutive 3s, the first at the 7:15 mark.
After his third 3, which gave the Rebels a 34-23 lead with 6:15 to go, Bennett pumped his arms as he jogged back to ignite the sellout crowd of 18,500.
“It was a hot streak, or whatever you call it,” Bennett said. “Once I hit the first one, I tried a second one, and then I had to take a third one. I was really fired up.”
UNLV was unable to shake the Rams, mostly because Iverson powered his way to the rim at will.
Reinhardt got things rolling from the perimeter, sinking a 3-pointer to put the Rebels ahead 16-12, and the momentum continued to turn their way when Marshall drove the lane and banked in a shot from close range while being fouled by Jon Octeus. The foul call triggered a tirade by Rams coach Larry Eustachy, who drew a technical from official Verne Harris.
Eustachy stormed the sideline, screaming at the officials and staring down Harris. Reinhardt made two free throws for the technical, and Marshall added a free throw as UNLV took a 21-14 lead with 13:23 to go.
Colorado State got a boost from senior point guard Dorian Green, who was not expected to play because of a sprained right ankle. Two days after Eustachy said there was a “99.9 percent chance” Green would miss the game, he was in the starting lineup.
Green’s 3-pointer tied the score at 21, but Bennett responded by leading the Rebels on a 16-3 run. After Bennett scored nine straight points for UNLV, a 3 by Reinhardt made the score 37-24 with five minutes to go.
That was the Rebels’ largest lead. The Rams got back into it and pulled within 49-47 on a free throw by Iverson with just under 14 minutes remaining. Khem Birch, UNLV’s best post defender, went to the bench with his fourth foul, and senior Quintrell Thomas was sent in to body up to Iverson.
Marshall drove past Iverson for a layup to put the Rebels in front 55-47 with 11:44 left. Bennett cooled off in the second half, held scoreless until dropping in a 12-foot jumper with 6:42 on the clock.
Colorado State made one more charge, cutting its deficit to 64-61 on Eikmeier’s 3-pointer from the corner with 5:22 left.
Reinhardt, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Bennett answered by hitting consecutive jumpers to help UNLV move on in pursuit of its first conference tournament title since 2008.
■ NOTES — New Mexico won last year’s MW tournament title. ... The Rebels reached the title game for the eighth time, and the first time since 2010. ... Approximately 2,000 tickets remain for today’s game.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.