LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — EJ Harkless scored a career-best 35 points as UNLV stopped Air Force 78-70 in overtime in the first round of the Mountain West tournament on Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Rebels (19-12) advance to play Boise State (23-8), the No. 2 seed, at 6 p.m. Thursday.
UNLV got a quality defensive effort from Victor Iwuakor, who contributed five blocked shots and four rebounds, with all of his blocks coming after intermission
“Zero — I can’t say his name — definitely came in and had an impact on that game,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said of Iwuakor, No. 0, who played 22:08 and was especially good in the overtime.
Harkless scored the Rebels’ first eight points of the extra period, then came up with a steal to set up a driving layup by Luis Rodriguez for a 67-62 lead.
The game was tied 57-57 at the end of regulation, with Harkless getting a layup on a fast break to cut Air Force’s lead to 57-56 with 1:14 remaining. He then made one of two free throws with 18 seconds left to force the extra period.
UNLV coach Kevin Kruger, whose team beat Air Force 54-53 on Feb. 24 at the Thomas & Mack praised the Rebels’ opponent and admitted the Falcons’ style was tough on his team.
“Things don’t change for them,” Kruger said. “The stuff they run is really hard to defend. No matter what you do, it seems like you’re a step behind.”
UNLV shot 42.4% (25-for-59), including 37.5% (9-for-24) from 3-point range. Defensively, the Rebels had a solid effort, holding Air Force to 38.6% shooting (22 of 57), including 34.8% on 3s (8 of 23).
Each team was solid from the free-throw line; the Rebels made 19 of 26 to 18 of 20 for Air Force.
Both teams had stretches of stumbling offensively. Kruger said Air Force’s tenacity led to poor spacing, standing around and looking confused. Often, with the shot clock winding down, the Rebels just tossed it to Harkless and seemed to hope for the best, Kruger said.
“It forced us into a lot of situations where we took some tough shots,” he said.
Scott, on the other hand, praised UNLV’s defensive tenacity and just finding a way to win.
“Give them credit for figuring out how to win a game in March, when it’s never pretty, never perfect,” Scott said. “Obviously, the kid Harkless is a helluva player, and they’re all over this league.”
Air Force’s Carter Murphy, who contributed 19 points and drew the defensive assignment on Harkless for long stretches, agreed. Whether from long range, on the dribble-drive or short jumpers, “He can score from all three levels,” Murphy said.
Rodriguez added 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Rebels. Teammate Justin Webster had 12. The Rebels played without point guard Keshon Gilbert, who was suspended for a sportsmanship violation in the regular-season finale against Nevada-Reno.
Gilbert was ejected for an altercation against UNR’s Tre Coleman, then seemed to brush his head at Coleman. Gilbert will be available to play against Boise State in the Thursday semifinal.
For Air Force, which closes at 14-18, Jake Heidbreder scored 24 points, making 8 of 19 shots, including 5-for-10 on 3s.
Harkless, who shot 9-for-20, including 4-for-10 from 3, and also added 13 free throws on 18 attempts, said he just tried to play hard, work at generating offense. Preparing for what Air Force does on defense is nearly impossible because of their focus, he said.
“That’s a really good team,” Harkless said. “They’re really disciplined, so disciplined that you can’t get that in practice.”
Rodriguez added that it was good he and his teammates were able to turn to Harkless when things got tight on offense.
“He’s been a great scorer all season,” Rodriguez said. “It’s good to have a player like that. It’s like you just give him the ball.”