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UNLV to play California in first round of NCAA Tournament

If not for a freak injury on Dec. 9, UNLV’s basketball season might have turned out vastly different. Mike Moser needed no reminder. But he got one anyway.

Be it déjà vu or irony, Moser and his teammates sensed it Sunday afternoon while gathered at the Mendenhall Center to watch the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament bracket.

The Rebels (25-9) drew a No. 5 seed in the East Region and will open against 12th-seeded California (20-11) at 4:27 p.m. Thursday at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The game will be shown on truTV (Cox cable 54).

It’s not only a rematch, it’s a flashback to a significant moment. When the teams met in Berkeley, Moser hit the floor in pursuit of a loose ball. The junior forward was face down and feeling severe pain, his right arm bent awkwardly.

“That was the first thing I thought about,” Moser said after seeing the UNLV-Cal matchup. “Not too many good memories.”

Moser’s fall occurred less than five minutes into the game. He was helped to his feet and escorted to the locker room, emerging later wearing a sling to support a dislocated elbow. Only recently has he shown flashes of being the player he was before the injury.

“I try not to remember that. It was kind of nasty,” freshman forward Anthony Bennett said. “I was running back on defense. I looked back and he was on the floor, and I didn’t know what was wrong. After the game, they showed the replay, and I was disgusted.”

The Rebels did take away some positive memories, however. They won the game 76-75 on senior forward Quintrell Thomas’ layup with 1.2 seconds remaining. Anthony Marshall shot an airball from 15 feet, and Thomas snatched it near the rim and spun to beat the clock.

Bennett, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds against the Golden Bears, said, “I’m pretty sure they want revenge.”

UNLV, 7-1 and ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll at the time, missed Moser’s leadership and performed erratically during the Mountain West season.

No Rebels coaches or players expressed disgust with the rematch being staged close to home for Cal.

“We’re excited to be staying West,” coach Dave Rice said. “It gives our fans an opportunity to fly or to drive to San Jose.”

It’s extremely rare for a nonconference game to turn into an NCAA Tournament rematch in an opener, and NCAA selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski offered a weak explanation when grilled by CBS analyst Greg Anthony, a former UNLV player.

“Trust me, we didn’t try to make that matchup,” Bobinski said. “We’re aware of that rematch, and we’re also aware of the geography. It was the best we could do at that moment in time.”

Thomas said he’s not concerned about the Bears having a location advantage.

“I prefer it,” he said. “Usually, there is that feeling of uncertainty this time of year because you don’t know the team you’re going to play. But we do know them, for the most part.”

Cal finished 12-6 and in a three-way tie for second in the Pacific 12 Conference. But the Bears were bounced in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, losing to Utah 79-69 in overtime Friday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

UNLV opened as a 3-point favorite over Cal, and the winner advances to face either Syracuse or Montana on Saturday.

The Rebels, upset by Colorado in last year’s NCAA opener at Albuquerque, N.M., are not looking that far ahead.

“We need to go try to win a game, and just concentrate on the first game,” Rice said.

Five teams from the Mountain West drew NCAA bids, with New Mexico getting the best seed at No. 3. The Lobos earned an automatic bid by beating UNLV 63-56 in the conference tournament championship Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“It’s one of those losses where it’s definitely a downer. We had a championship in our hands and kind of let it slip away,” Moser said. “But getting a 5-seed and this draw kind of helps.”

San Diego State drew a No. 7 and faces 10th-seeded Oklahoma, guided by former Rebels coach Lon Kruger, on Friday at Philadelphia. Colorado State (No. 8) and Boise State (No. 13) also got at-large invitations.

This is UNLV’s fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but it has not won a game since 2008.

Rice said in order for the Rebels to get over that hurdle they need to make a quick emotional bounce-back from the loss to New Mexico.

“I need to go out on a positive note,” Thomas said. “It was definitely a big blow to me because I wanted to get a ring on the way out of here. So this is the last chance that we have to make the season significant.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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