It was an unlikely matchup, but one that worked for UNLV.
Even giving up 5 inches in height to San Diego State 6-foot-10-inch forward Jalen McDaniels, UNLV’s Nick Blair more than held his own in their most recent matchup.
McDaniels, who scored 30 points in the first meeting and 12 in the first half of the rematch, was limited to four points in the final 20 minutes of the Feb. 23 game with Blair as the primary defender.
The teams meet again when the fifth-seeded Rebels (17-13) play the No. 4 Aztecs (19-12) in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Thomas &Mack Center. CBS Sports Network will televise the game.
Both teams received a bye into the quarterfinals by finishing in the top five of the league standings. The tournament opens Wednesday with three games beginning at 11 a.m. The championship game is at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“He’s one of their key guys,” Blair said of McDaniels. “He’s an All-Mountain West guy, potentially an NBA player. So making sure we do a good job on him is huge, not just me, whoever ends up on him. Making sure we do a good job on him is going to help no matter what.”
The last UNLV-San Diego State meeting could have gone either way. After losing 94-77 in January in San Diego, the Rebels led in the final two minutes and had an open look by Blair off a broken play that would have won the game. The Aztecs instead left with a 60-59 victory.
“Definitely if that scenario happened again, I think we would be a lot better,” UNLV point guard Noah Robotham said. “Holding a team to 60 points, hopefully in two days that’s good enough to win the game.”
Blair said he wasn’t dwelling on that last-second miss.
“I think losing in general is enough motivation by itself,” he said. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Without Blair’s physical defense on McDaniels, the Rebels wouldn’t have been in position to win.
What that means for the third meeting is anyone’s guess. The assumption would be that UNLV would stick Blair back on McDaniels, but Rebels coach Marvin Menzies wasn’t about to give away his game plan.
“They’ve got a litany of guys that are very capable,” Menzies said. “You’ve got to play them as a team, but you’ve got to be aware of their personnel’s strengths. It’s always chess at this time of year.”
One key difference between the first two meetings is that UNLV had center Mbacke Diong for the second game, and his presence inside made a big difference.
He missed the first meeting because of an ankle injury, then had eight points and 15 rebounds in the February game.
“Mbacke just being in the paint makes life difficult for a lot of guys, like (Neemias) Queta for us at Utah State,” Robotham said. “So I think we’ve got to be fundamentally sound. (McDaniels is) a good player. He’s going to make shots. He’s going to be a professional for a reason.”
UNLV’s Kris Clyburn makes All-MW defense team
UNLV senior guard Kris Clyburn was named third-team All-Mountain West by the coaches Tuesday and to the all-defense team. He averages 13.9 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Clyburn and teammate Noah Robotham, also a senior guard, were named to the third team by the media on Monday.
As in the media poll, Utah State dominated the major awards — Sam Merrill was named top player, Neemias Queta top defender and freshman, and Craig Smith top coach.
Other major awards went to Fresno State’s Braxton Huggins for top newcomer and UNR’s Jazz Johnson for Sixth Man of the Year.
Mark Anderson Review-Journal
Men’s Mountain West tournament
At Thomas & Mack Center
First round: Wednesday
Game 1: Boise State vs. Colorado State, 11 a.m.
Game 2: New Mexico vs. Wyoming, 1:30 p.m.
Game 3: Air Force vs. San Jose State, 4 p.m.
Game 4: UNR vs. Game 1 winner, noon (CBSSN)
Game 5: San Diego State vs. UNLV, 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 6: Utah State vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 7: Fresno State vs. Game 3 winner, 8:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 6 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 9: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 8:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 10: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 3 p.m. (KLAS-8)