The UNLV Runnin' Rebels head to the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in their own building, the Thomas & Mack Center, on Friday night yet they are not considered the home team as they clash with eighth-ranked San Diego State.
Seeded fourth in the tournament, the Runnin' Rebels would like to get back to the championship round for the second year in a row and make up for a lost opportunity in 2013 when they bowed to New Mexico, 63-56. Owners of three championships, UNLV managed to take down a pesky Wyoming squad on Thursday afternoon in a 71-67 final.
While the Runnin' Rebels were going do to the wire against the Cowboys, top-seeded San Diego State was making it look far too easy as it demolished Utah State in the quarterfinals, 73-39. The victory was the fifth straight for the Aztecs and marked the fourth time this season that they've held an opponent to less than 40 points.
San Diego State has won this event a total of four times, the most recent title being claimed three years ago with a 72-54 victory over BYU. A year earlier these teams met in the finals, with the Aztecs grabbing a 55-45 win.
In terms of the all-time series between the programs, the Runnin' Rebels are ahead by a count of 35-23, even though SDSU swept the season series for the fourth time this year. The Aztecs logged a 63-52 win at home at Viejas Arena in January and then posted a 73-64 win here at the Thomas & Mack just nine days ago.
The winner of this meeting will go up against the survivor of the Boise State/New Mexico battle in the title game on Saturday for the right to represent the MWC in the NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels shot only 35.5 percent from the field in the first half against a Wyoming squad that has been playing without its best player for several weeks now, but in the end the hometown favorite turned it around in order to grab the win. Bryce Dejean-Jones came off the bench for a change, following a suspension, to tally 22 points, while Roscoe Smith also appeared as a reserve, yet that didn't stop one of the nation's top rebounders to post 18 points and 13 boards. The only UNLV starter to score in double figures was Deville Smith who tallied 15 points, although Khem Birch, the MWC Defensive Player of the Year, did fill his stat line with eight points, nine rebounds and four assists, not to mention on blocked shot.
To say that the San Diego State meeting with Utah State was one-sided would be an understatement, as the Aztecs scored the first points of the afternoon and never looked back. The squad opened the meeting on an 8-0 run, let 36-15 at the break and by as many as 38 late in the second half, even as the starters took an early seat on the bench. Xavier Thames played on a few minutes in the second half, but still tallied a team-best 15 points and seven assists, while Winston Shepard tacked on 13 points. Josh Davis was responsible for another eight points and 13 rebounds, as well as six steals in the lopsided outcome.
One of two players to have started every game for the Aztecs, Thames paces the group with 16.9 ppg, 96 assists and 52 steals, numbers that raised his visibility and earned him MWC Player of the Year honors.