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Early injury to Air Force star makes UNLV’s job much easier

Perhaps the folks at Guinness have a record on it. Might be worth checking.

A college basketball game ended with 18:24 left in the first half Wednesday afternoon. The score was 4-3.

They played the remaining 38 minutes and change because the rules demand it and it’s important referees get paid for their services (sigh), but UNLV long since had punched a ticket into the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament.

The Rebels beat Air Force 72-56 at the Thomas & Mack Center, a game that took the toughest of twists when Falcons guard Michael Lyons went down with a sprained knee not two minutes into things.

He was helped from the court, unable to put any weight on the knee, led up a tunnel and never returned.

It was about that time I tweeted if the newly elected pope is really 76, there is no way he is making it past his rookie contract.

Yeah. The outcome became that predictable.

UNLV was going to win, and Lionel Messi was moving into the Vatican.

“We got out of character a little bit,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said.

A little?

Do you remember the scene from “Cheers,” when Kevin McHale is counting the number of bolts in the Boston Garden floor, lost in a confused trance and almost unable to function?

That was Air Force for 15 or so minutes following its best player being injured. The Falcons were a mess, reaching seven points with 15:08 left in the half and not scoring again until 6:56 remained.

This was an experienced, talented Falcons side, yet not one with near the depth needed to overcome such an injury against a team as capable as UNLV.

Lyons got hurt, and the game turned into a summer league AAU run between a team with a lot more talent against one with less ability than desire.

UNLV shot just 14-for-34 in the half, made just 2 of 13 3-pointers over that span and still led 33-20.

It’s a shame about Lyons. He led Air Force in scoring 15 times this season, a senior standout in a college game with fewer and fewer each year. You hate to see it.

It’s a (very) safe bet UNLV would have advanced regardless, given how well the Rebels shot over the final 20 minutes. Air Force also lost its best post player, Taylor Broekhuis, to a chin injury for all but eight minutes, allowing Rebels freshman Anthony Bennett to spend much of the second half resembling a child dunking a NERF ball into 6-foot rims on Christmas morning.

Bennett (23 points, seven rebounds) was the main reason UNLV scored 38 points in the paint, a forward who suddenly appeared quite healthy from an injured shoulder that limited his production the past four games.

It was a definite trend up and down UNLV’s bench, doing whatever possible to erase from all memories the debacle that was losing the season’s final regular-season home game on Saturday.

Heath Schroyer even wore a tie. It was lavender. Johnny Vegas changed things up at the assistant coach’s spot.

It seems falling to Fresno State twice in a season makes a guy go wacky.

“We were a determined group, practiced very well (this week),” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “One of the keys for us down the stretch (this season), other than the Fresno State game, is that we value the ball. This is the fourth game in a row where we had between nine and 10 turnovers. That’s a huge deal for us.

“Certainly, Michael Lyons is a fantastic player. The conference is better with Mike than without him. Yet (injuries) are part of the game. We hope his health is OK. We have all the respect in the world for them.”

I’m not sure UNLV could have defended Air Force better, and yet limiting the Falcons became a whole lot easier with Lyons in the locker room. But the Rebels were more physical, standing the Falcons up on most back cuts, more active in passing lanes, forcing many of Air Force’s 15 turnovers, certainly impressive enough for stretches to deserve a semifinal matchup against Colorado State on Friday night.

The Rams beat Fresno State in a quarterfinal, thus denying the college basketball world of a highly anticipated third installment of UNLV versus The Mighty Bulldogs, which would have marked another opportunity for the Rebels to finally conquer a seventh-place team.

Crazier things have happened, like a pope bring elected who in 76 years never has driven a car.

It’s the sort of thing one tweets about when a basketball game ends with 18:24 left in the first half.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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