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Graney: UNLV point guard among program’s greatest freshmen

The 3-point attempt came from about 4 feet behind the line. It hit front rim and bounced away.

Dedan Thomas Jr. pulled at his jersey in massive disappointment. He lifted his head to the rafters and closed his eyes.

Oh. What might have been.

That close. That close to continuing what was a spectacular basketball game from the UNLV freshman point guard.

For a program that has certainly had its share of outstanding first-year players, Thomas has firmly attached himself to such a list. He’s near the top. We knew that before Thursday. It’s beyond obvious now.

The Rebels fell to San Diego State 74-71 in overtime of a Mountain West men’s basketball tournament quarterfinal before 8,968 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

It ended any UNLV dreams of winning three games in three days to earn an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. The Rebels will now wait word from the NIT, a postseason event their résumé suggests could land a spot in the field.

Top freshmen

This is pretty clear. UNLV has had some terrific freshmen. To name a few: Stacey Augmon. Anthony Bennett. Kaspars Kambala. Wink Adams. Brandon McCoy. Sidney Green. Mark Dickel. Rashad Vaughn. And now Thomas.

Those who follow the program closest insist Thomas is the most impactful freshman in program history. Hard to argue after watching him this season.

And here’s the crazy part: He hasn’t even scratched the surface of what his talent might one day produce.

“He just plays with such great pace,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “There’s coaching, where you can get a guy better, and then there’s just a kid who plays with great instincts. He knows when to go fast and when to go slow.

“He hasn’t even tapped into a 3-point shot, which he can make. When he starts shooting that with confidence … I mean, he was unstoppable tonight. We tried doubling him, we switched on him, switched sides on him, and he still got to his spot.”

Thomas finished with 29 points and five assists, but the significant part was when many of his baskets came. In the biggest of moments. When needed the most.

He scored his team’s first eight points and 10 of its first 16. But he also scored its last six of regulation, the final make coming with 0.5 seconds remaining to tie the game at 65 and force overtime.

It was something. A full-speed drive that included a spin and underhand scoop shot.

The Rebels would then have one final gasp, one final chance, just 2.7 seconds left in a three-point game. And even when San Diego State doubled him near mid-court, Thomas was able to find a seam and step into a 3.

Front rim. Bounced away.

“(Thomas) shouldered a lot of the burden this year, which was something in discussions all the way through recruitment about what it was going to be like,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “A lot of opportunities, a lot of expectations, and a lot of opportunity for growth.”

He’s right. They gave him the keys and let him drive. Had the ball in his hands when final minutes ticked away in games. Had his number constantly called when a last shot was needed. Didn’t make them all. But didn’t lack for confidence, either.

Great production

I’m not sure anyone could have predicted how much production Thomas would deliver upon deciding to reclassify and depart Liberty High a year early. Led the Rebels in minutes and scoring and assists. Played with a maturity far beyond 18 years.

And he cared. Deeply.

The watery eyes following Thursday’s loss told you how much.

“As I got more games under my belt, I just kept getting more confident, more comfortable,” Thomas said. “That’s just all my teammates and coaches. They kept trusting me and giving me confidence.”

You score 29 points in a game like this, you deliver the sort of season he did, and you know the question is coming.

It did from one reporter afterward: Is Thomas 100 percent committed to returning to UNLV?

“I’m definitely coming back next year, yeah,” he said.

And he’ll be even better.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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