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Rebels earn first-round bye with win over Broncos

For the second year in a row, the Rebels have earned a first-round bye in the Mountain West Tournament.

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

With the season winding down, the Rebels are playing its best basketball. UNLV extended its winning streak to four-games with a 76-66 victory over Boise State on Wednesday night.

Coming off an upset victory on the road against then undefeated San Diego State, the Rebels showed no signs of a let down through the first 30 minutes of the game. UNLV’s defense held to Boise State to only 22 points and halftime and the Rebels at one point had a 27-point lead.

Even though the result was never in question, the Broncos made it interesting late. Boise State outscored UNLV 33-16 in the final 10 minutes. The Broncos were also aided by UNLV’s struggles at the free-throw line, the Rebels shot 51.8 percent (14 of 27) from the line.

T.J. Otzelberger called UNLV’s defense the first 30 minutes “suffocating.” Even though they did not play well down the stretch, it will present itself as on opportunity for UNLV to get better heading into the conference tournament.

As a coach, you always want your team to play at their best regardless of what the score says,” Otzelberger said. “Certainly, there were some moments there late that we did not do the best job of that, (it’s) another learning opportunity for our guys. Overall, this is a key game, especially after the game on Saturday, to bounce back.”

For the fourth game in a row, the Rebels rolled out its four-guard lineup, and they made their presence felt on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, the Rebels held the Broncos to 31.3 percent shooting from the field. The also held Derrick Alston to only 11 points. But offense is where the guards make the difference.

With the return of Elijah Mitrou-Long, and development of Bryce Hamilton and Marvin Coleman, the Rebels have the confidence to play small often.

“It really opens up the floor,” Otzelberger said, “especially when teams are playing man-to-man. We’ve got four playmakers out there, guys that can get down-hill and are dynamic with the ball…it does open up the floor, it does give us opportunities. We’re at our best, by far, in transition before we let the defense get set. And with those four-guard lineup out there, when we advance it, we can really drive it before they get set.

The trio of Hamilton, Amauri Hardy, and Mitrou-Long provided the scoring advantage that helped the Rebels build its large lead.

On his senior night, Mitrou-Long logged 35 minutes and scored 16 points. Since his return from injury, he has been the difference maker for UNLV on so many instances this year. In his last four games, he is averaging 17 points per game.

“These last couple of weeks, he has taken our team to a whole other level,” Otzelberger said. “His energy our there defensively, he is getting steals, creating transition plays, every once in a while, he got a little bit of flare for the dramatic with a no look pass or a move people like. I wish we had Eli a few more years.”

Hamilton, the reigning conference player of the week, continues his hot streak in conference with his 22 points. Hardy led the Rebels in scoring with 24 points.

The win assures UNLV will finish in either fourth or fifth place in the Mountain West. And a rematch with Boise State in the quarterfinals are also likely.

UNLV heads out on the road for its final game of the regular season to face San Jose State on Saturday at 2 p.m.