Third-seeded UNLV built a 10-point lead in the second half of its semifinal game against No. 2 Brigham Young, but needed some clutch free-throw shooting to hold off the Cougars and advance to the championship game with a 70-66 victory at the Mountain West Conference tournament on Friday night.
Tre’Von Willis went 4-for-4 from the line and Brice Massamba hit 1 of 2 in the final 37 seconds to give the Rebels the victory.
Willis finished with 18 points on just nine shot attempts for UNLV. Chace Stanback added 17 points and six rebounds.
Massamba provided an unexpected spark, scoring a career-high 13 points and pulling down six rebounds.
The sophomore center went 5-for-6 from the field.
“(I’m) really happy for Brice. He’s made so much progress,” UNLV head coach Lon Kruger said. “He’s got great instincts as a player and he’s starting to get more comfortable and more confident finishing the ball in the post and he’s a big reason we were able to get a halftime lead.”
The Rebels overcame a 30-point effort from BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who had another outstanding game.
The junior guard went 12-for-12 from the line and hit 4 of 11 from 3-point range.
Kruger was satisfied with UNLV’s defensive effort against the star guard because he felt most of his shots were contested.
“I felt he had to work all night long,“ Kruger said “We didn’t give him too many easy ones. I think the guys made him work.”
Fredette finishes his tournament an amazing 35 of 36 from the free-throw line.
BYU used a 14-2 run to take a 61-59 lead with 2:49 left. On the shot that put the Cougars ahead, Willis was injured and had to go back to the locker room.
The Rebels needed a basket and were without their leading scorer.
Chace Stanback stepped up and hit a baseline jumper to tie the score and stop the BYU momentum.
“We were just trying to stay focused and work together as a team,“ he said of the team keeping its composure through the BYU surge. “Coach drew up a good play and I just knocked the shot down.”
Massamba made a pair of free throws on the Rebels next possession and Willis emerged from the locker room as the free throws were attempted.
He re-entered the game and took control.
After one Brandon Davies free throw, Willis drove to the basket and hit a short jumper off the glass.
“He re-sprained that ankle that he sprained earlier in conference play,” Kruger said. “He came back and made a tough right-angle bank shot and we’re always confident in him making free throws at the end of the game.”
Fredette made a pair of free throws for BYU, but Willis answered with two of his own.
Massamba then made 1 of 2 from the line with 14 seconds remaining and Fredette answered with two more from the line.
Willis was fouled and made a pair of free throws with less than 10 seconds remaining to clinch the game.
“We always expect Tre to come through for us. He’s been doing that all year,” Stanback said. “He’s a warrior. He’s our leader. Whatever he does is positive for our team.”
Oscar Bellfield struggled a bit shooting the ball, but did have nine assists for UNLV.
BYU freshman Tyler Haws did not play in the game after sustaining an eye injury in the quarterfinal win on Thursday night.
He sat on the bench in street clothes and the swollen eye was not a pretty sight.
BYU coach Dave Rose is somewhat optimistic he can get Haws back for the NCAA tournament, however./
“It’s a really unfortunate thing for Ty, but we got some good news,” Rose said. “As soon as the swelling goes down and he can see out of the eye, he’s cleared to play. There was a time today where we thought there may have to be some kind of surgery.”
Fredette was in no mood to talk during the postgame news conference.
Upon taking his seat on the dais, Fredette put his head down and stared at the table.
He glanced up only momentarily when answering questions and appeared to be crying.
At one point, Jonathan Tavernari started an answer by saying, “We’re not going to cry over spilt milk.”
It’s impossible to know if he was directing the cliché at Fredette as a way of telling his teammate to get over it. In fact, it’s most likely it was just a coincidence.
Fredette wasn’t exactly talkative when he was asked questions. One of his answers isn’t likely to make him very popular with UNLV fans.
While much of the league complains about the star guard getting special treatment from officials, Fredette complained he was on the short end of things tonight.
“(The officials) were letting things go. It’s in (UNLV’s) favor,” he said of how the Rebels defensed him in the game.
On a completely unrelated note, the above entry referenced the fact Fredette attempted 36 free throws in the tournament.
Jonathan Tavernari’s BYU career will end without the forward ever experiencing a win over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The senior played the Rebels seven times in this building without ever getting a victory.
“My freshman and sophomore years in the (tournament) we had the game in our hands and they just made a few more plays. It’s just something that I don’t have an answer for,” he said.
Tavernari said the combination of playing a good team in a very hostile environment has just been too much to overcome.
“Playing here is as tough as playing any other place in the country,” Tavernari said.
He played his senior year of high school basketball just a few miles away at Bishop Gorman.
The league announced during the UNLV-BYU game that the night session was the first sellout in Mountain West Conference tournament history.
The attendance for the session was exactly 18,500.
The fans definitely got their money’s worth.
The semifinal doubleheader was billed as potentially the best night of basketball in league history.
It lived up to the lofty expectations.
“Two great games tonight for the league,” Kruger said. “Four teams playing really good basketball and two games that could have gone either way.”
The day featured what is likely four NCAA tournament teams in a pair of games that both went right down to the last seconds.
Tomorrow’s championship games certainly have a tough act to follow.
Championship Saturday will feature San Diego State trying to sweep both the men’s and women’s titles.
The Aztecs will play Utah for the women’s championship at 1 p.m.
That will be followed by San Diego State and UNLV for the men’s title at 4.