LAS VEGAS — Just eight days ago, the Boise State men’s basketball team trailed UNLV by 27 points and ultimately fell 76-66 in a lopsided affair at the Thomas and Mack Center.
The Broncos will have to find a way to beat the Runnin’ Rebels in the same building to extend their season.
Boise State (19-11) gets the odd rematch with UNLV when the two face off in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament Thursday at 3 p.m. MST on the CBS Sports Network.
“It’s a unique situation, but we had a great week of prep,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “Our guys are excited to be back here and ready to play. … If we don’t do a better job in this game, the season is over. That’s the reality of the situation you are in this time of year and we have a lot of guys that want to keep playing.”
The Broncos don’t have history on their side. They are just 2-6 in the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West Tournament the last eight years.
But many of those losses were as favorites, and the Broncos don’t figure to have much pressure facing them this time around. Nobody is expecting much from Boise State this week, especially given the draw of having to play a surging UNLV team inside its own building.
“We just have to play with a lot of urgency,” said senior Justinian Jessup, who was held scoreless for the first 30 minutes in the last game. “The days are counting down.”
It’s not impossible to think the Broncos can beat UNLV — heck, they already did it back In Boise in January. But that wasn’t the same Runnin’ Rebels team that won five straight games to end the regular season, including a win over previously undefeated San Diego State on the road.
UNLV appears to be clicking on all cylinders at the perfect time in coach TJ Otzelberger’s first season. Well maybe the perfect time for everybody but the Broncos.
“They are arguably playing better than anybody in the league right now and we know that,” Rice said. “We’re going to have to play a great game. We have a lot of respect for what they are doing. They’ve done it on the road, they’ve done it at home, and they did it to us. We know we’re going to have to play a great game.”
Boise State would love to be the team entering the tournament on a winning steak and with tons of confidence. Instead the Broncos are coming off one of their worst games of the season.
Getting off to a better start will be imperative. In the previous meeting last week, Boise State had just 13 points with 3:30 remaining in the half. The Broncos shot just 25% from the field in the fist 20 minutes, and trailed by 12 points at the break.
It wasn’t much better in the second half as UNLV hit 17 of 21 shots at one point to open up a 27-point lead. The Runnin’ Rebels shot 50.9% for the game as they drove and got to the rim with ease against a Boise State defense forced to play small due to foul trouble.
“It was a bad defensive game for us,” Jessup said. “We’ve been fixing it. We’re excited to play.”
Rice was critical of Boise State’s defense after the last meeting, saying during a postgame interview, “They just went through us like a hot knife through butter. We had no rim protection. We have to guard the ball better and help each other better. If we want to get something done (at the tournament), we have to play a lot better defense.”
Rice didn’t want to get into specifics about the defense this week, saying, “that’s why people are going to want to tune in to the game. You have to see what has to improve.”
Making the scenario even more ominous for the Broncos in Las Vegas is that even if they beat UNLV they’ll likely have to face top-seeded San Diego State in Friday’s semifinals. It’s not the path the Broncos would have picked to take a run at the Mountain West title.
An NIT bid also would seem unlikely unless the Broncos were to beat both UNLV and San Diego State.
But for the five seniors and the rest of Boise State’s roster, they appear loose and ready to give it all they’ve got. They don’t have another option.
“I have guys that usually respond to the challenge,” Rice said. “I have a veteran group that likes each other and wants to keep playing, and there’s only one way to stay here.”