Boise State made it clear early Thursday that this wouldn’t be a repeat of last week when UNLV took as much as a 27-point lead on the Broncos.
They led for nearly 35½ minutes in the rematch and by as many as 11 points before the Rebels twice cut the margin to two in the final 2:20.
The Rebels never made up the entire deficit, losing 67-61 in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Fourth-seeded UNLV’s five-game winning streak ended as did its season at 17-15. Coach T.J. Otzelberger indicated the Rebels wouldn’t accept a bid from anything below the National Invitation Tournament.
“We have a high standard for this program,” he said.
UNLV faced the fifth-seeded Broncos (20-11) — who play top-seeded and fifth-ranked San Diego State (29-1) in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday — without their most important player down the stretch. Guard Elijah Mitrou-Long keyed the late-season run, and his on-court absence was noticeable.
Without him, UNLV only made 31.6 percent of its shots and missed 10 of 26 free throws and still nearly won. But the Rebels never had an answer for Boise State’s RJ Williams, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds.
Here are three takeaways:
1. Mitrou-Long made that big of a difference
Otzelberger didn’t want to use Mitrou-Long’s bruised knee as an excuse for the loss, but it certainly was a key reason. He averaged 17.6 points during the late winning streak, allowed UNLV to better spread the floor and provided strong defensive and senior leadership skills.
UNLV was out of sorts nearly from tip-off and never truly got into a rhythm.
“Eli was a huge spark for us,” said Hamilton, who led the Rebels with 24 points. “We missed him today. We just couldn’t get it done.”
Otzelberger credit Mitrou-Long with helping establish a foundation for future teams.
“Do I wish we had Eli?” Otzelberger asked. “Of course I do.”
2. Boise State bottled up the middle
Broncos coach Leon Rice looked at the 42 points UNLV scored in the lane when the Rebels won the Feb. 26 meeting 76-66 and knew that couldn’t happen again.
Boise State took away UNLV’s driving lanes and forced either tough shots at the basket or let the Rebels fire away from 3-point range. UNLV scored just 18 points in the lane, and the Rebels missed 18 shots from close in. They also made just 9 of 27 3-pointers.
“They torched us in the paint last game, and we knew that was going to be a big factor,” Boise State guard Derrick Alston Jr. said.
3. Otzelberger wants to get started on 2020-21
The UNLV coach will be doing just that over the next two weeks as he tries to figure out how eight members of the recruiting class are going to fit on a roster that loses just three scholarship seniors.
So change is coming, but this season also was about trying to establish a standard that will remain in place. The traits Otzelberger emphasized were a strong work ethic, team unity and competitive drive.
“You can change the way a team sees themselves, and you can change a season,” he said.
“They were playing maybe the best basketball in the league down the stretch,” Rice said of UNLV.