UNLV erased a 13-point deficit and overcame its first half struggles to have a chance to pull off a come from behind victory against No. 4 seeded Wyoming.
The Rebels had the ball with 22 seconds left and the Cowboys made sure Bryce Hamilton would not take the final shot for the Rebels.
“They started to trap me and forced me to make a pass,” Hamilton said.
The ball found the hands of freshman guard Keshon Gilbert. The true freshman missed the corner 3-pointer and sealed a 59-56 win for Wyoming in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament Thursday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
UNLV had drawn up the play for Hamilton, who scored 18 of his team-high 22 points in the second quarter. Head coach Kevin Kruger expressed trust in Gilbert after he had missed the shot.
“The ball ended up in (Gilbert’s) hands and he didn’t hesitate,” Kruger said. “We’ll take that.”
The Rebels scored the game’s first basket, a Royce Hamm layup 20 seconds into the game. It would be their only field goal for the next 12 minutes as Wyoming built up a 21-8 lead.
UNLV slowly chipped away at Wyoming’s lead. Donovan Williams hit a three-pointer and turnaround jumper that started a 10-4 UNLV run that brought them within single digits.
After struggling in the first half, Hamilton found his groove in the second half. He scored UNLV 10 of UNLV’s first 12 points and Williams knocked down a 3-pointer to cap off a 8-0 run that gave UNLV its first lead of the game, 38-37.
“We just got into a little bit of a hole but it ended up erasing that by doing what we’ve been doing last month, and that’s just part like crazy rebounding, making plays for each other,” Kruger said.
Both teams traded the lead three times before a pair of baskets from Williams gave UNLV a 56-52 lead with under two minutes remaining. But Wyoming’s Xavier DuSell hit a pair of free throws and a corner 3-pointer with 30 seconds remaining to give Wyoming a 57-56 lead.
After Gilbert’s missed 3-pointer, Brendan Wenzel hit two free throws. UNLV had a chance to go to overtime with three seconds remaining, but Hamilton’s 3-point shot hit the front of the rim and missed.
“We came out a little stagnant, but just never stopped fighting,” Kruger said. “There was never a hint that we weren’t going to fight, we’re going to compete.”
UNLV shot 29.6% from the floor in the first half, as Wyoming’s defense made it challenging for UNLV to generate any consistency on offense. The Cowboys were able to cover the Rebels as they tried to use ball screens to get Hamilton open, but they were unsuccessful.
In the second half, UNLV ran ghost screens where it looked like they were going to set a screen, but ended up not doing so. That created more space for Hamilton and Williams to create separation and get open shots.
But Wyoming held a 45-29 advantage on the boards as Wyoming forward Graham Ike grabbed 13 rebounds while only scoring 11 points.Wenzel led Wyoming with 12 points.
“It hurts,” Hamilton said. “We played so hard and fought this game, we were down 13 in the first half. We fought and came back to get the lead.”
Kruger said that he would highly consider a berth to the NIT if the committee decided to choose UNLV. They will find out the NIT bracket Sunday afternoon, following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Wyoming will play top-seeded Boise State Friday at 6:30 p.m.