LAS VEGAS -- UNLV and San Diego State have spent the last month making their case to join heavyweights New Mexico and Brigham Young in the NCAA tournament.
Both underdogs will get to give a closing argument in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference tournament.UNLV upset BYU (No. 15 ESPN/USA today, No. 14 AP) 70-66 on Friday night, three hours after San Diego State edged No. 8 New Mexico 72-69.
"Two great games tonight for the league," Runnin' Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. "Four teams playing, I thought, really good basketball at a very high level and two that go right down to the wire. Any one of the four could have won."Tre'Von Willis scored 18 points, Chace Stanback added 17 and Brice Massamba 13 for the third-seeded Runnin' Rebels (25-7), who will face the fourth-seeded Aztecs (24-8) for the title Saturday night.Stanback said the sensational semifinal upsets proved that the league deserves four NCAA tournament bids."Yeah, I definitely think it was proved tonight," Stanback said. "San Diego State won. They had a great game. We played well. There's a lot of talent in this league. I think people don't really realize that. But we showed it."UNLV didn't let Jimmer Fredette go off quite like he did a night earlier in a win over TCU, when the junior from Glens Falls, N.Y., set tournament records with 45 points and a 23-of-24 performance from the line. This time, he was "held" to 30 points -- 12-of-12 from the stripe."He's a terrific player," Kruger said. "I thought he had to work all night long. Didn't give him too many easy ones. Didn't foul him too many times. Didn't need to. He's just a terrific player. He's a guy that keeps the pressure on, defenses all the time. I thought our guys made him work."But he did OK, though, getting 30."Fredette scored 12 of his points in the final six minutes, but it wasn't enough to prevent BYU's eighth straight loss to UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.Fredette's 3-pointer from 3 feet beyond the arc trimmed BYU's deficit to 59-56 with just under four minutes left, and his three free throws with 3:14 left tied it at 59.Michael Loyd Jr. put BYU ahead 61-59, but that was the Cougars' last lead.Fredette's two foul shots pulled BYU to 68-66 with 11 seconds left, but Willis sank two at the other end 2 seconds later for a 70-66 lead, and the Cougars were done."They just made shots at the end, made big plays," Fredette said. "We didn't."Kruger said nobody across the country should be surprised to hear that UNLV and San Diego State are playing for the championship instead of New Mexico and BYU."You have four teams that have played at a pretty high level all year," he said. "Two ballgames tonight that could have gone either way."Cougars coach Dave Rose agreed."Well, I'm really proud of our team," he said. "I thought we played a really competitive game, played a really good team. I think our players, as far as our coaches are concerned, you know, we executed our game plan and did everything that we wanted them to do tonight. We just came up a couple points short."The Cougars sorely missed guard Tyler Haws, who sat out with his left eye swollen shut. He was poked during a play Thursday night.Rose said there was a fear earlier Friday that Haws, who averages 11.2 points and 4.0 rebounds, would need surgery but doctors said his vision was fine and now they just have to wait for the swelling to subside so he can open his eye and return to action."You know, it's tough when your third-leading scorer is not there," Cougars senior Jonathan Tavernari said. "We feed off Ty so many different ways: rebounding, scoring. He gives an extra presence, an extra offensive weapon for us. ... It's hard not to have those extra points that we usually get."But even without Ty, you know, in the end, they made a few more plays that we usually make," Tavernari said. "They weren't there for us tonight. But you've got to give UNLV a lot of credit for the way they played, for making those plays that we didn't."