UNLV rallies to 66-60 victory over No. 22 Colorado State

Kalin Sipes-The Sporting Tribune
18-year-old freshman Dedan Thomas Jr. scored 18 second half points to lead UNLV to a crucial victory over Isaiah Stevens and No. 22 Colorado State despite a Rob Whaley injury scare.

LAS VEGAS — UNLV earned one of the best wins of the Kevin Kruger era on Saturday night, beating No. 22 Colorado State 66-60 at the Thomas and Mack Center. It was as good of a crowd as the Runnin’ Rebs have had at home over the last few years, even better than last week’s solid showing in a heartbreaker over UNR.

“The best part about it is to have such a great crowd again and to not have a discussion point after be about (how incredible the crowd was) but then have to move on because you didn’t win,” coach Kevin Kruger said after the game. “It gives you goosebumps on the sidelines because you know that energizes your guys…I think we can give a big thank you to the crowd for helping us get that done.”

UNLV started the game on the back foot, falling behind 8-2 thanks to early contributions from Colorado State’s Joel Scott and Nique Cliford . They went down by as many as 10 before the midway point of the first but were able to make their way back to even with under a minute left. The highlight for the Runnin’ Rebels in the first half was yet another fantastic poster slam from Rob Whaley that brought the house down and punctuated the comeback late in the first half.

In all actuality, it was far from the ideal half for UNLV. Kalib Boone led the team with eight points in the first half but he was also arguably their biggest liability due to his inability to secure the ball in the post. He only had two turnovers on the stat sheet in the first half but there were a handful of possessions that were thrown out rhythm because the ball slipped out of his hands or because he was pickpocketed. Luckily, UNLV was able to recover a few of them and minimize the damage but it was a noticeable issue for their offensive flow in the first half.

They did a decent enough job on known UNLV killer Isaiah Stevens in the first half. They allowed just seven points from the Colorado State star and limited him to 3-7 shooting from the field before the break.

“(Stevens) is going to have the argument to say he’s one of the best Mountain West players of all time,” Kruger said postgame. “That’s not just something you throw around casually. He’s got the career to show for it.”

The second half started with a nightmare for UNLV, as Rob Whaley went down in the opening minutes of the half with a non-contact injury favoring his knee. His father revealed on X during the game that Whaley had actually suffered an ankle injury, which he later confirmed to be a low ankle sprain. At this point, the Runnin Rebels were met with a fork in the road. One where they’ve taken differing directions at points during the season. But today there was no question, they were going to rally behind their brother and fight for a third ranked win.

“(Rob) is a huge part of this team. Ever since conference play started he’s been dominating every single team we’ve played so missing that part is huge,” said UNLV forward Isaiah Cottrell after the game. “We just had to step up and figure out a way and we did”

Dedan Thomas Jr. led the charge for UNLV in the second half. He tallied 18 of his 23 points down the stretch and further established his campaign to be the Freshman of the Year in the Mountain West. UNLV shot 50% in the second half, going 8-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from behind the arc. They also converted 22-of-23 free throws in the second half. Considering the fact that last Saturday’s loss to UNR could be directly traced to four consecutive missed free throws at the death, it cant be overstated just how important that improvement was.

Saturday’s game showed that this team’s potential is entirely reliant on how well they can lock in and do the little things. It has been the consistent, small lapses in judgement in the waning moments of their crucial in-conference losses that will likely keep them out of the NCAA tournament barring a conference tournament title. If they want any chance of running the table and making this a March to remember, they need to be as focused and consistent as they were on Saturday.

Isaiah Stevens ended his final regular season game against UNLV with 18 points for Colorado State. The Runnin’ Rebels’ kryptonite got his licks in during the second half, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to overcome an inspired UNLV team. Kevin Kruger offered him the utmost praise an opposing coach can give a player after the game.

“I’m glad that was the last time we have to face him at the Thomas & Mack.”