Courtesy of Braidon Nourse

LAS VEGAS – With 2.7 seconds left on the clock, No. 4 seed UNLV had one shot to hit a 3 and tie up a game that had already gone to overtime. Down by three after No. 5 San Diego State’s leading scorer in Jaedon LeDee hit free throws to extend a lead, he took with a tough falling hook shot a possession earlier.

Then after a timeout, UNLV had to go all 94 feet to try and tie. Dedan Thomas Jr., the Mountain West co-freshman of the year from UNLV, had already been feeling it. In regulation, he was trusted with the ball in his hands down by two, and he delivered with a scoop layup off of a quick spin.

He led all Runnin’ Rebels with 29 points, which was just three points from Wyoming’s Graham Ike’s mark for the all-time Mountain West tournament scoring record for a freshman.

The ball in his hands again, Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher was wary to tell his guys to foul whoever caught the ball off the inbound – he didn’t want someone to catch the ball and instantly attempt a shot while his players fouled.

So the players played. Thomas caught the ball and ran into a double team, which he split expertly to create a running 3-point shot for himself. It caught the front of the rim and out, and with it, the Aztecs escaped with a 74-71 victory to set up a Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship semifinal between them and No. 1 Utah State.

There was some relief, sure. But…

“That’s just March,” Aztecs guard Darrion Trammell said. “Wins are going to be ugly, but it’s all that matters that we get the win and now we get to focus on the next game.”

LeDee stole the show, finishing with 34 points and 16 rebounds. His scoring output was just one point shy of landing in the top five for a single Mountain West tournament scoring total.

He was also fouled 17 times, which played a role in fouling out two Runnin’ Rebels, nearly a third. Definitely a point of emphasis. And it ended up being the difference in the end, as LeDee hit his two biggest free throws despite missing seven of his 18 attempts on the day.

“I feel like I get fouled probably every time I touch the ball, but those were the 17 times they called it,” LeDee said. “I’m just glad we capitalized on the free throws and capitalized on the opportunity when we got fouled.”

But his production on the boards, which contributed to the Aztecs outrebounding UNLV 50-31, were the real difference to Dutcher.

With the Runnin’ Rebels missing Keylan Boone, who brought down 11 rebounds when his team beat the Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center just more than a week ago, Dutcher wanted the battle on the glass to be a lopsided one to his team’s advantage.

“Rebounding was the key. When the other Boone didn’t play, that was a huge momentum change,” Dutcher said. “He is their offensive rebounder. He is the rebounding problem. They had a short bench, and they had to play different lineups and different combinations.

“That’s hats off to UNLV missing a really important player, and it’s hats off for us for finding a way to finally get a close win. We’ve lost so many close games. We finally got a close win, and it’s a good time to do it heading into this tournament and heading into the NCAA tournament.”