GAME NOTES: Once again, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels get to enjoy some home cooking during the 14th annual Mountain West Conference Tournament as they take on the Air Force Falcons in quarterfinal-round action at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Seeded third in this year's event, the Runnin' Rebels have captured the crown a total of three times, most recently back in 2008 when they repeated as tournament champs against BYU. UNLV had some ups and downs this season, dealing with key injuries, but still the squad finished with a 10-6 mark in conference play, although it did have a five-game win streak snapped in the regular-season finale when it bowed to Fresno State at home, 61-52.
Meanwhile, the sixth-seeded Falcons have had almost no success in this tournament over the years, showing just two wins in 15 opportunities dating back to 2000. The squad was middle-of-the-road as far as conference play was concerned during the regular season, splitting 16 MWC outings.
During the regular season these teams split their two meetings, with the game being played in Sin City going to overtime before the hosts captured a 76-71 victory back in January. With the Falcons having won the more recent battle on Feb. 13 by a score of 71-56, it means the all-time series now stands at 29-9 in favor of UNLV.
The winner of this meeting will head to the semifinals on Friday to clash with the survivor of the Fresno State/Colorado State battle.
The Falcons built up the early portion of their slate with plenty of victories, but most of those were against sub par opponents that did little to prepare the academy for a real MWC schedule. In fact, over the final nine games of the regular season, the Academy won a total of just three times, one of those coming against a sputtering Wyoming group. Air Force did raise more than a few eyebrows with what has to be considered one of their biggest wins in recent memory, the one-point victory versus New Mexico on Saturday, but it seems to be more a case of the Falcons capturing lightning in a bottle more than anything else right now. Michael Lyons, who dropped 45 points on Colorado State a few weeks ago, leads the offense with 18.3 ppg, but beyond that there is not much that stands out for a program that has just two wins in this event since its inception. Mike Fitzgerald chips in with another 11.4 ppg in conference play and was one of the better rebounders in those contests with close to four per outing as well.
The UNLV Runnin' Rebels may have finished third in the standings this season, but still the team is quite the enigma as it gets ready to host the sixth- seeded Air Force Falcons in the quarters on Wednesday. UNLV, which has won this tournament three times and has appeared in the title game a total of seven times already, should have been pummeling opponents with the lineup it had going into the season. Mike Moser was supposed to dominate for the program, but he was slowed by injuries and then started back up as a reserve, resulting in just 7.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest after being a regular double-double threat last season. Anthony Bennett exploded onto the scene in his first year with 15.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg, but he too suffered an injury late in the campaign, and the squad then closed out the regular season with a loss at home versus Fresno State so you have to wonder where their heads are at right now.
Being at home should be enough to give the Runnin' Rebels a lift in this meeting, but it all depends on how well Bennett and Moser perform in the paint.
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