Runnin’ Rebels season ends in overtime for second consecutive year

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Justin Webster dribbles the ball up the court against the San Diego State Aztecs in the Mountain West quarterfinal on March 14. (Photo courtesy of Tairese Hall/Taiflicks)

UNLV Men’s basketball (19-11) was defeated by the San Diego State Aztecs (22-9) by a final score of 74-71 in the Mountain West Championship Tournament quarterfinal. 

The Rebels entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed, and the Aztecs entered as the No. 5 seed, each earning a first-round bye. 

The two squads split the in-season series at one game apiece, but in the most recent matchup, the Rebels won at home inside the Thomas & Mack Center by a final score of 62-58, their fourth win against a ranked opponent this season. 

The biggest headline leading up to the game was the availability of Kalib Boone, one-half of the Boone twins who had sustained an ankle injury in the final regular-season game against the Reno Wolf Pack. 

Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher spoke about how the loss of Kalib Boone impacted the game: 

“The key to this game was rebounding, and we took a major step forward on that, but the Boone brother didn’t play who is a sensational rebounder, and Kevin (Kruger) did a fantastic job moving his lineup around to account for that loss.”

When the starting lineups were unveiled, Kalib Boone had been moved to the bench, hoping to play in the game down the final stretch if the team needed him. 

The starting five for UNLV consisted of Shane Nowell, Rob Whaley Jr., Dedan Thomas Jr., Luis Rodriguez, and Keylan Boone, leading into the tip-off, which UNLV won.

Thomas made his presence felt early, scoring two baskets off of layups during UNLV’s first two possessions and putting UNLV up 4-0 two minutes in. 

San Diego State returned fire at 16:23 in the first half. Jaedon Lee and Lamont Butler made their first two baskets, tying the game up 4-4, leading into its first media timeout. 

After Thomas successfully scored his fifth point of the game after hitting one of two free throws, LeDee answered with his second make, scoring 6-5 in favor of the Aztecs with 14:35 remaining in the half.

Good defense in the Aztecs’ end allowed for a fast break opportunity for Butler, who secured his fourth point of the night and extended the lead to 8-5 with seven minutes off the clock. 

However, Thomas picked up an additional three points at the line on consecutive trips, and Justin Webster sank his first 3-pointer to put the Rebels on top for the first time since the opening two minutes.

A 10-2 run for the Runnin’ Rebels, fueled by two 3-point shots by Webster but was cut short by a slam dunk from LeDee, making the score 16-12 UNLV with just over seven minutes to play.

After over two minutes of solid defense from both sides, Jay Pal’s drive to the net yielded the basket that broke the scoring drought and cut the Rebel lead down to two, 16-14. 

Although the Aztecs returned to tie the game 16-16, Webster stayed hot from deep, coming off the bench, to reclaim the Rebels 19-16 lead with three minutes remaining before halftime. 

The Rebels closed the first half, outscoring SDSU 11-6 and holding a  27-22 lead over the Aztecs. The scoring did not come by committee in the first 20 minutes of play, as Webster finished with 11 points and Thomas scoring 10. 

The Aztecs started with possession in the second half and LeDee finished off a drive to the rim for two points, and Jay Pal floated one in from beyond the arc during the next possession to bring the game to one possession contest 29-27. 

In the ensuing play, Rob Whaley was hurt and helped off the court by training staff, but after taking a short break on the bench returned to the floor for the Rebels.

On UNLV’s third possession of the half, Thomas put up a floater in the paint for the Rebels first basket in the second half, but the Aztecs answered back with their points, making the score 31-29 two minutes in. 

After a scoring drought that lasted about 60 seconds, Keylan Boone and Darrion Trammell exchanged 3-point buckets, tying the game up 34-34 with 16 minutes on the clock. The fans from both sides made their presence felt inside the Mack.

Although the game had been tightly contested, back-to-back Rebels turnovers fueled a 10-0 Aztec run and a 41-34 SDSU lead six minutes after halftime. 

The first three Rebels points tallied on the scoreboard since the 17-minute mark came from Keylan Boone at the free-throw line after he was fouled on an attempt from beyond the arc. The score stood at 41-37 with 13 minutes on the clock. 

However, this did not slow the Aztecs down. LeDee continued to attack the rim, drawing the Rebels’ eighth foul of the half and extending the Aztec lead to 45-39 after the foul on Jackie Johnson was determined to be a flagrant one. 

Following the makes from the free throw line, LeDee also posted five points on the next two Aztec possessions before Thomas ended an 11-2 SDSU run with a 3-pointer, making the score 50-44. 

As LeDee continued his play underneath the offensive basket, he picked up two more baskets, tallying his 26th point of the game. With less than eight minutes to play, the Aztecs led the Rebels 57-48 on the scoreboard and 18-5 in offensive rebounds. 

After two successful free throws from Thomas, the Aztecs responded with a 3-point off a floater from Mles Bryd and established the game’s first double-digit lead 60-50 with 6:30 remaining. 

As the clock continued to dwindle during the Rebels season, the freshman Thomas responded with back-to-back two-point buckets and helped power the UNLV offense to a 7-0 run, bringing the Rebels within three 57-60. 

In the final two minutes of the game, the Aztecs found two baskets to extend the lead to 64-57, but both the Rebels responded with two baskets of their own from Thomas and Whaley Jr, once again narrowing the scoreline to three 64-61 with under 30 seconds to play. 

When the Aztecs had the opportunity to put the game away, Micah Parish missed both free throws, allowing the Rebels to tie the game and send it to overtime, which Thomas did. 

A floater from inside the paint connected for his 27th point, keeping the Rebels’ season alive with half a second left on the clock with a tie game 65-65.

At the start of overtime, three turnovers occurred before Keylan Booe posted the first basket of the extra frame from inside, making the score 67-65. 

A missed basket at the other end would result in a foul going the other way on a shot by Thomas, narrowly missing the field goal but converting on both free throws, extending the lead to 69-65. 

However, the Aztecs would not go away quietly. Trammel would sink the team’s first basket of overtime, and LeDee would convert on back-to-back free throws, tying the game 69-69.

The Rebels responded with still more fight on the next possession, as Whaley slammed home a dunk to regain the lead, 71-69. 

The Aztecs would draw Nowell’s fifth personal foul on the ensuing possession, but LeDee would only make one of two from the line as the Rebels maintained a 71-70 lead. 

In the season’s possible final possession for the Rebels, a turnover would give the ball back to the Aztecs with 21 seconds remaining, and LeDee’s 11th basket from the floor would spell the end to the Rebels’ season with a final score of 74-71.

Although the Rebels season ended in heartbreak, there is much to look forward to next year for UNLV faithful as the Rebels currently hold the projected number one recruiting class in the Mountain West Conference. 

In addition, during post-game media availability, when asked about his commitment to the UNLV basketball program going forward, Thomas said, “I’m definitely coming back next year.”

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