UNLV is enjoying a red-hot run on its home court. Brigham Young has had some Mountain West Conference tournament success there, as well.
The 25th-ranked Runnin’ Rebels—boasting a 16-game winning streak at the Thomas & Mack Center—look to win their first tournament title in seven years as they face the 23rd-ranked Cougars on Saturday night.
Poor attendance forced Mountain West tournament organizers to move the event from the Pepsi Center in Denver after three years back to Las Vegas, where it was held the first four years, and UNLV (27-6) has taken advantage of playing in its home city.
The Rebels, who advanced to the title game with an 88-72 win over Colorado State on Friday night, earned the conference’s inaugural crown in 2000 with a home win over the Cougars.
“To me if feels great,” said UNLV guard Wink Adams, who had 18 points against the Rams. “I mean, it doesn’t change for me. It’s just like playing in the regular season, playing at home in front of fans.”
UNLV handily extended its run at home, where it is 18-1. The Rebels are 9-2 in the conference tournament play in Las Vegas, but went just 4-3 in three trips to Denver.
Second-seeded UNLV, ranked for the first time since the final week of the 1992-93 season, has its most wins since 1990-91, when it went 34-1 but lost to Duke in the Final Four.
The Cougars, though, are 8-3 all-time at the tournament in Las Vegas, including a title in 2001. This is their first championship game appearance since then.
Trent Plaisted tied a career high with 27 points as BYU advanced with a 96-84 win over Wyoming on Friday night. Conference player of the year Keena Young added 12 and 10 rebounds for the Cougars.
“Players realize that the season’s over if you don’t win and it changes the mind-set,” BYU coach Dave Rose said.
Plaisted had a big game despite continuing to struggle from the foul line. The sophomore center shoots just 49.7 percent from the line, and only hit 7 of 16 Friday as the Cougars missed 16 foul shots overall.
Plaisted made just 1 of 6 free throws in BYU’s 90-63 win over UNLV on Feb. 3 in the teams’ last meeting.
“You know, there’s not really much you can attribute it to,” said Plaisted, who has reached 20 points in consecutive games for the second time this season. “I didn’t step up and knock them down when I needed to. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
Plaisted had 22 points in a win over TCU on Thursday night. He has helped the Cougars shoot better than 50 percent from the field in 10 of their last 14 games.
The 6-11 Plaisted should have an advantage in the paint against an undersized Rebels team. Joel Anthony is UNLV’s tallest player at 6-9, but is averaging just 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Kevin Kruger, who transferred from Arizona State to play for his father, Lon, this season, has led the Rebels in the tournament. The fifth-year senior guard scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half and dished out nine assists Friday after scoring 21 against Utah the previous night.
If the Rebels win, Lon Kruger will become the fifth coach in Division I to take four different teams to the NCAA tournament, joining Lefty Driesell, Jim Harrick, Rick Pitino and Eddie Sutton. Kruger previously guided Kansas State, Illinois and Florida to the NCAA tournament, reaching the Final Four with Florida in 1994.
UNLV and BYU have split two games this season, with each team winning at home. The Cougars lead the all-time series 12-11.