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‘Great game, great fight’: Freshman stars as Rebels topple No. 22 Rams

Updated February 24, 2024 - 8:29 pm

Dedan Thomas Jr. has made his way through this Mountain West season, improving as he goes, a UNLV freshman with immense talent coming to understand all that makes college basketball.

Fast learner, this kid.

Thomas was terrific in the second half Saturday against No. 22 Colorado State, and the Rebels secured a significant victory.

They beat the Rams 66-60 at the Thomas & Mack Center behind the play of Thomas and some oh-so-clutch free-throw shooting over the final 20 minutes.

Thomas scored a game-high 23 points and tied for a team-best six rebounds in front of 8,591.

The Rebels (16-10, 9-5) were 22-for-23 from the line in the second half.

They were 10-for-10 over the final 1:14.

Clutch is right.

“We just came into this game more mentally prepared,” Thomas said. “We knew it was going to come down to making free throws and getting stops. I just wanted to stay aggressive. I knew when we were in (the bonus) in the second half, so my teammates just told me to stay aggressive.”

He obliged. Thomas finished 12-for-12 from the line.

The win didn’t come without a potentially big loss for the Rebels.

Junior forward Rob Whaley Jr. went down with what appeared to be a left ankle injury with 18:43 left in the game and Colorado State (20-8, 8-7) leading 30-27. Whaley was helped off the court by trainers and didn’t return.

In his place entered redshirt sophomore Isaiah Cottrell, who offered a key 10 minutes defensively up front.

The worry coming in was how the Rebels might contain all-everything guard Isaiah Stevens. The senior would score a team-high 18 points for Colorado State, but they were more than earned via the defense provided by the likes of Luis Rodriguez and Jackie Johnson.

The Rebels held Colorado State to 39 percent shooting, including 6-for-24 on 3s.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “A great game, great fight. They continue to work. They continue to get ready. They continue to surprise me in a good way. Really happy for them. Nice to be on the other side of one like tonight that could have easily gone the other way.”

This is also good for UNLV: The victory allowed it to move into a top-five position in the league standings.

The top five seeds receive a bye in the conference tournament.

Colorado State led 26-24 at halftime in large part because of the cold front that moved across UNLV’s roster those first 10 minutes or so.

The Rebels began the game shooting 4-for-18 from the field, including 1-for-7 from 3. But things turned as UNLV became more aggressive getting to the basket. The Rebels shot eight free throws over the last eight minutes of the half, making just four.

They obviously figured things out on that end at intermission.

UNLV rallied from down as many as 10 points to take a 22-21 lead on a Rodriguez 3 and went up three on a Kalib Boone dunk. It was UNLV’s first advantage since 2-0.

But the Rams closed with a 5-0 run for their halftime advantage.

Boone led the Rebels with eight points over the opening 20 minutes, while Whaley added six.

And when winning was on the line in the second half, a freshman who just continues to get better and better made the plays needed.

Thomas “is just tough,” Kruger said. “He had some uncharacteristic (turnovers) in the first half, but he took a breath at halftime and then made some huge plays. He took advantage of opportunities.

“His growth and ceiling is limitless. He’s our leader, he’s our point guard, and is doing a great job. Doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. He’ll have a little smile on his face, but he won’t be celebrating.”

He should after this one. All of them should.

In the topsy-turvy world of Mountain West basketball this season, when no result is a surprise, UNLV just stamped itself a significant win.

Contact Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.

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