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Rebels ready for ‘big games ahead’ with conference standings tight

It’s not surprising that the top seven teams in the Mountain West standings were separated by a game and a half entering Tuesday.

That’s just how competitive the top of the conference is.

UNLV, for its part, is right in the mix. The Rebels (13-9, 6-4 Mountain West) are tied with UNR for the sixth-best record in the conference after their 80-77 victory at New Mexico on Saturday.

The team can climb higher with another road win at Fresno State at 8 p.m. Wednesday. UNLV is just a half game back of a four-way tie for second place.

“It’s a testament to the guys keeping their attention and focus forward where it needs to be, on the next game,” coach Kevin Kruger said. “We’ve played a lot of really good basketball. We’ve had a lot of really good games and continue to get better.”

The Rebels received a career night from freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr. at New Mexico. Thomas scored 25 points and had just two turnovers.

Kruger said Thomas has done an “unbelievable job” handling the physicality he’s faced in conference play.

“It was great to see. (Thomas) had a little spark to him (against New Mexico),” Kruger said. “I think that’s just coming with being more comfortable continuing to grow as the year goes on. … At the end of the game, when it comes to handling the ball and decision making, we’re gonna put the ball in his hands and trust that good things will happen.”

Thomas’ teammates have fed off his confidence. His poise on the court is impressive for an 18-year-old. He reclassified after his junior year at Liberty to join UNLV this season.

“At (Thomas’) young age, what he’s providing for our team and how much of an impact he’s had for us so far, it’s good,” fifth-year guard Luis Rodriguez said.

The Rebels hope Thomas keeps it up against the Bulldogs.

The two teams last met Jan. 30 in a 78-69 UNLV win at the Thomas &Mack Center. It was the second victory of the Rebels’ current four-game winning streak.

UNLV found success working the ball inside against Fresno State, with fifth-year forward Kalib Boone scoring a team-high 21 points in the victory. The Rebels hope to follow a similar blueprint Wednesday.

“We shoot way higher percentages with a paint touch,” Rodriguez said. “We know paint touches are a critical part of our offense so we can get the ball there and get easy buckets.”

Rodriguez said he can feel the importance of each game with UNLV so close to the top of the standings.

There are eight games remaining in the regular season. Rodriguez said playing smart and making hustle plays are key for the Rebels to make a run at the Mountain West title.

“We know that and what’s ahead — there’s some big games ahead,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just not letting that stop what we got going on, staying focused and taking it one day at a time.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X

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