Las Vegas, NV – The semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament kicked off this evening with hometown UNLV facing top-seeded and No. 8-ranked San Diego State. The Aztecs pulled away in the second half to top UNLV 59-51 behind 18 points and six rebounds from Dwayne Polee II and 17 points and six assists from Mountain West Player of the Year, Xavier Thames. Point guard Deville Smith led the Rebels with 17 points while 6’9 Khem Birch added 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.
UNLV got off to a hot start scoring the first seven points of the game before the Aztecs got serious. They battled back and took the lead midway through the half on a three-point play by J.J. O’Brien. San Diego State maintained a small lead through the rest of the half, going into halftime with a five-point (29-24) advantage.
As usual Thames led San Diego State with nine points, three assists and no turnovers at the half. Polee added five points and five rebounds off the bench. Birch was solid for the Rebels battling on the boards for nine rebounds and leading his team in scoring with six points.
Polee and Matt Shrigley hit back-to-back three pointers to extend the Aztec lead to ten points (41-31) early in the second half. A runner by Thames and a short jumper by Polee, after he missed a thunderous dunk, raised the lead to 14 (45-31). Polee hit another three-pointer to extend he lead to 15 a few minutes later. The closest UNLV was able to get the rest of the way was five points with 48 seconds left on a three-pointer from Bryce Dejean-Jones.
Polee, a 6’7″ junior transfer from St. John’s, has been getting more time lately and has increased his contribution. He’s now scored in double-figures in five of his last ten games and brings yet another long, athletic player to the Aztec frontcourt. The Aztecs out-rebounded UNLV by seven off the offensive boards.
They go on the face the winner of the New Mexico-Boise State game tomorrow afternoon a 3PM in front of a sold-out Thomas & Mack Arena for the championship.
In the nightcap, in front of 15,135 fans, most of them New Mexico fans, the Lobos raced out to a 12-2 lead before Boise State battled back to close the deficit to one (28-27). The Lobos then ended the half on a 7-2 run and went into halftime leading 35-29. Australian Cameron Bairstow led the Lobos with 10 points and five rebounds a the half. New Mexico owned the boards, enjoying a 22-10 rebounding advantage. 7’0 Alex Kirk had seven first half rebounds. Point guard Derrick Marks tried to keep the Broncos in the game with ten points.
Boise State hung tough in the second half despite getting no production from leading scorer Anthony Drmic (his first points came with 5:11 left in the game). Thomas Bropleh picked up the slack, canning a three-pointer to tie the game with 10:30 left. After the Lobos went on a 5-0 run, Bropleh (16 points, 4-of-7 3PT) hit another three from the corner to cut the Lobos’ lead to 51-49. At that point Bropleh was called for a flagrant-2 foul on Bairstow (23 points, eight rebounds) and was ejected from the game.
Boise State kept the game close despite missing their top scorer of the night. They closed it to 61-59 on two free throws from Marks but New Mexico hit their shots when they needed it. First Kendall Williams hit a three-pointer, then Bairstow made a 14-footer to extend the lead to 66-59. After Williams missed two foul shots, Jeff Elorriaga hit a three-pointer with 21 seconds remaining to bring the Broncos within one (66-65). Williams atoned by making two free throws with 18.6 seconds left. Marks (20 points) kept it within one scoring on a drive. Then Bairstow was fouled with 3.8 seconds left. He made both, giving the Broncos one last chance to tie the game with a three-pointer. It wasn’t to be as the Broncos were called for a backcourt violation on the in-bounds pass and New Mexico escaped with the 70-67 win.
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