UNLV moves on to NIT quarterfinals with 79-70 win over Boston College

Candice Ward-USA TODAY
UNLV lives to see another day in the NIT and will travel to the campus of Seton Hall for an NIT quarterfinal matchup set for Wednesday night on ESPN2.

LAS VEGAS — UNLV survived and advanced in the storied NIT Tournament, beating ACC foe Boston College 79-70 in front of a raucous Thomas and Mack Center crowd on Sunday night.

“They did what they needed to do when they needed to do it,” said UNLV coach Kevin Kruger. “Just like any basketball game, it’s not perfect for 40 minutes but when we really needed to get us off we did and we really needed a good luck we got one.

“I’m really happy for him but especially happy for the seniors you know this the last game last time in here with the with the jersey on and so it’s a it’ll be a special member you know an unbelievable crowd.”

Keylan Boone led the charge for the Runnin’ Rebels, shooting 5-for-8 from behind the arc with 20 points. His brother, Kalib, added 16 of his own on 7-for-11 shooting from the field after making a surprise entrance in the game early in the first half. Kalib has been largely absent from the lineup whole nursing an ankle injury since late in the first half of the loss at Nevada to close the regular season a few weeks ago. He did try and go in the Mountain West quarterfinals against San Diego State, but it was fully apparent to everyone with a working set of eyes that he could barely walk.

“(Kalib) played great. He a spark like he never left,” said Keylan Boone. “It’s just good to see him back out there. I think at the end of the day, we all just want to spend a little more playing together. I’m pretty sure the coaches would love to coach him up a little more, too. It just the works out for everybody in that case.”

“Kalib is an offensive threat that really helps us out on the glass, so having his presence was much needed,” Justin Webster said. “You can tell we missed it. Especially losing that San Diego State game. He brings a certain level of intent on the offensive and defensive ends that on this team really needs.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve seen since being part of this program, and I just love it for him. I know he’s been dying to get back out there in, especially with his brother. To help us get another win last time on this court. I know it means everything to him.”

The first half was closely contested, with UNLV hanging on to a tight lead for much of the early proceedings. After UNLV had led for over thirteen minutes in the first half, a flurry of three-pointers by Boston College gave the Golden Eagles a brief first half lead in a game in which they were physically outmatched.

The start of the second half was some more tug-o-war between the two teams. At least until the Runnin’ Rebels re-established control near the midway point. UNLV re-took the lead on a mid-range jumper from Jackie Johnson with 10:28 remaining in the game and rallied from that point on down the stretch for the nine point win.

They did try and complicate things toward the end a little bit, allowing Boston College to get within four in the final minutes, but the Golden Eagles couldn’t surpass that plateau in the end.

It may have been UNLV’s last home game in a turbulent season, but it was a night at the Thomas & Mack Center that truly felt like a window into what this program could be in the future with improved fan support.

It’s been a long time since the Mack housed an atmosphere for a UNLV game like the one it fostered on Sunday. The crowd was completely filled in about midway through the first half, taking up the vast majority of the lower bowl. It was the best showing of the season by the numbers, but the fans were far greater than even the sum of their parts during the game. 

During tense moments in the second half, the entire lower bowl was collectively standing, and they were loud. The sights and sounds were outstanding. For the first time in my years as a UNLV student and now a beat reporter, I can honestly say the Thomas and Mack Center felt like an elite college basketball environment. 

“I mean, (it was) the best crowd of the year by a mile,” Kruger said. “I think they should all be welcome back. Anybody who doesn’t have a season ticket, I think they should be welcome back next year. Especially for that first home game so we get off to a good start.

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere that was really loud. The energy that they provided was one of the reasons that we were able to hang on and beat a good Boston College team.”

If this is the feeling that an NIT appearance brought to the campus, just imagine what a tournament run could do for this program.  Vegas is the center of the sports universe now, and while that may have diluted the power that UNLV once wielded in this city, they still have the unique distinction of being the forefathers of this sporting scene. 

On Sunday, the UNLV community did their part in showing that this city is still a college basketball city when it wants to be. Especially when the stakes are worth it. Yes, it’s only the NIT, but it’s also the first taste of postseason basketball for Runnin’ Rebel fans in a decade and they completely showed out. I can only imagine they will show out even more when UNLV finally breaks that decade-plus long NCAA Tournament drought. It’s painfully apparent how bad the UNLV community wants some sort of basketball success. As amazing as the Tark era was, for most UNLV fans at this point it is just a collection of stories from a golden era that the younger generation of Runnin’ Rebels can’t even comprehend.

Now, it’s time for the big money in Las Vegas to do its part in bringing UNLV’s legendary basketball program back to national prominence. In the age of NIL, most of the old tricks that almost put UNLV on the NCAA’s electric chair 30 years ago are now legal and done through protected corporate entities. Vegas has also seen its reputation improve in these circles considerably in the same span, going from undesirable to unavoidable in the hosting world. It shouldn’t take much selling to convince the moguls of this town to shell out low Power Five-esque NIL money, especially if you can start putting consistent NCAA tournament success on the table as a sweetener.