Quintrell Thomas accepted long ago that this is the hand college basketball has dealt him, perhaps not the royal flush he imagined coming out of high school as one of the nation’s top 20 players, but one that hasn’t busted him just yet.
He is the sort of player good teams need. You can chase conference championships with a bunch of hyped starters, but you won’t win many if those with lesser roles don’t make a difference every now and then.
Thomas did so Thursday, and UNLV beat Wyoming 62-50 before 15,460 at the Thomas & Mack Center in a game that won’t receive any awards for its aesthetic value, a truth that usually happens when you play the Cowboys.
Teams are always one big run away from separating just enough from Wyoming, which is at its best when the shot clock drops to single digits and opposing legs have grown weary from defending.
The Rebels were sloppy. Didn’t value the ball. Turned it over 15 times, often on unforced, stupid decisions. It was a night when a team’s seniors become paramount to winning, when experience on the floor trumped talent.
These are physical Cowboys, and it took a player like Thomas to match such aggression. The forward went for 13 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes, accepting the task and succeeding at holding Wyoming’s burly Leonard Washington under his season averages in points and rebounds.
“I’ve pretty much accepted my job, to help other guys get better in practice and use the opportunity to keep improving and maybe extend my career beyond this,” Thomas said. “It would be hard for anyone at first, but we’re going to win a lot of games, and when my time comes, it comes and I have to be ready. I still think the big picture looks good.”
He didn’t dream of this. He was rated the nation’s 17th best prep prospect when signing with mighty Kansas. Every player at the Division I level believes he will play professionally. Those at Kansas assume it’s a birthright. The Jayhawks have a level of star power few programs own.
But he made just one start as a freshman, averaged 1.5 points and 2.0 rebounds, was recruited over for better players and transferred to UNLV. It happens. It’s one harsh side of college basketball.
He is a fifth-year senior now who has no idea night to night how many minutes he might play. In three previous Mountain West games this season where he saw action, Thomas totaled 23 minutes, took three shots and made one.
He was 6 of 8 on Thursday.
“I just had a feeling coming into the game with the physical nature of how Wyoming plays, Quintrell would have a big game,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “He is our best one-on-one low-post defender. It speaks a lot to his character for how hard he has worked and for being ready for this opportunity. I’m really proud of him. When it comes time to guard someone like (Washington), Quintrell is the first one willing to go out and do it. He was so big defensively for us.”
Washington averages 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds, but managed just 13 and seven in 39 minutes Thursday. He made only 4 of 13 shots and, for some reason, attempted eight 3-pointers as a guy making just 20 percent beyond the arc. He didn’t play very Wyoming-like.
The Cowboys aren’t very good when they shoot early in a clock, which hasn’t happened much given their 15-3 record. They’re quite good when grinding away and limiting possessions for others.
It’s a hard game to win even for a team with obvious advantages in skill. UNLV needed all of Thomas and fellow seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins to get it done on a night where the Rebels received limited numbers from junior Mike Moser and sophomores Bryce Dejean-Jones and Khem Birch.
“Mountain West games are so difficult, so competitive, so physical, this was a very important victory for us to get,” Rice said. “Quintrell was terrific. You’re always happy for guys who hang in there and, while maybe not play as many minutes as they would like, step up and help their team when the chance comes.”
Thomas has never found himself at the final table with a fat stack of chips and all eyes on him. He has never realized the dreams players who sign with Kansas dream.
But this is neither a game or level for the weak of mind.
He has remained strong above the shoulders, a challenge not everyone could meet with such acceptance.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.