UNLV keeps rolling with 62-58 win over No. 21 San Diego State

Kalin Sipes-The Sporting Tribune
UNLV beat defending national runner-up San Diego State in a pivotal match up in the Mountain West title race.

LAS VEGAS — The Thomas and Mack Center had what CBS college hoops czar Jon Rothstein likes to call a “palpable buzz” on Tuesday night.

Freshman point guard Dedan Thomas Jr sank the game-winner with 18 seconds left, hitting a vicious step back that sent the Vegas faithful into a frenzy and allowed UNLV to perhaps peak their heads out of the proverbial coffin for an at-large tournament bid.

“Coach wanted me to get the switch on a foul.” Thomas said. “I got the switch, I made my move and they had confidence in me to hit the shot and I hit it.”

San Diego State is never just another game on the calendar, but this one just felt bigger than usual. For good reason. UNLV entered the game having won nine of their last 10, but more importantly were entering with a chance still to win the Mountain West regular season title after all of this year’s twists and turns.

Combine that with the fact that it was senior night, and the emotions were on tap. It was as close as we’ve seen to that vintage “Mack” environment in quite some time.

 “It looked like when I was coming here as a little kid.” said Thomas, who is a native of Las Vegas and son of UNLV legend Dedan Thomas. “I would be at these games when I was 10, 11 years old, big time games. Just seeing all of them over the years. Just to be in this moment and now be in this position, it’s crazy.”

“The way the crowd has progressed over the last month and a half is a testament to how well they’ve been playing and how hard they’ve been playing for the UNLV jersey,” coach Kevin Kruger said. “I made sure to point that out to them in the locker room. There’s a lot of happy people in the Thomas & Mack right now.  And (the seniors) of course are the reason why.”

UNLV held the Aztecs scoreless for almost five whole minutes to open the game, and San Diego State didn’t make their first field goal until almost eight minutes into the game courtesy of a three from Reese Waters. The slow start allowed UNLV to stretch their lead to as much as 17 points at the under eight timeout.

The Aztecs, however, are inevitable. The slow start wasn’t going to last forever, and they closed the half on an 18-5 run that brought them to within five at halftime in a 33-28 game.

The game continued the same trajectory in the second half. It was a game of cat and mouse, where UNLV would go up just enough points to breath before San Diego State had them on the ropes again.

“There’s kind of an aura around San Diego State, a confidence that they play with and they show. That’s something that makes teams harder. It’s a skill that comes from 20 years of being really good as a program,” said Kruger.

Thomas led all scorers with 19 points for UNLV to go along with three assists and three rebounds. Keylan Boone added 16 crucial points for UNLV and was a force guarding the perimeter on the defensive end.

Karl Jones made big contributions in his minutes for the Runnin’ Rebels, contributing five points, six rebounds and two blocks off the bench.

UNLV’s final game of the regular season is on Saturday night against their blood rival UNR at 7 p.m. in Reno. If Utah State loses to New Mexico in the game airing on CBS Sports directly before, this edition of the rivalry will be for the Mountain West regular season title.

Does it get any better than that?