The interstate rivalry between Nevada and UNLV runs deep. However, the feud will take a bitter turn on Wednesday. For the first time in history, the two programs will meet in a conference tournament game.
Win or go home. Do or Die.
And both schools are desperate for a win.
The tenth-seeded Nevada (9-21, 5-13 Mountain West) are all but playing for the job of head coach David Carter. The embattled Carter is in the midst of a third straight losing season. In spite of two years remaining on his contract (and a $600,000 buyout), his future is very much in limbo.
Carter stressed basketball is a three-season sport: nonconference play, league games and the conference tournament. The focus is on the final season, not job security or the past 30 games.
“Basketball is the only sport that gives you hope at the end of the season,” Carter said. “You have to go out and play as hard as you can. There’s nothing to lose.”
The good news for the Wolf Pack, it seems to bring out its best against the Rebels, especially at Thomas & Mack Center — the site of the conference tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada has won back-to-back games at the arena, including a dramatic 64-62 triumph back in January capped by a game-winning bucket from Marqueze Coleman.
“I know they bring the best out of us,” Nevada forward D.J. Fenner said. “We don’t like being the knockoff Vegas. We want to beat them. We’re really excited and ready to go.”
UNLV avenged the loss to its rivals three weeks later, trekking to Reno and edging the Wolf Pack 67-62.
Months later, the Rebels (17-14, 8-10 MW) are in the 11th hour, too. The storied program is in danger of missing its second consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. The seventh-seeded Rebels need to win the tournament to earn an automatic bid and turn their fortunes.
The future was looking bright for UNLV after defeating then-No. 3 Arizona at home in December. However, a slew of injuries have dimmed the Rebels chances.
Highly-touted freshman Rashad Vaughn has been sidelined since February after knee surgery. Vaughn was averaging 17.8 points and 4.8 rebounds a game beforehand and had a strong case for MWC Rookie of the Year (if not Player of the Year).
In its season-finale against San Jose State, UNLV went into the game with a mere six scholarship players due to its injury list.
The key matchup will be down low with the Wolf Pack’s AJ West and Rebels’ Christian Wood — the two best bigs in the conference.
West finished the season averaging 12.2 points and 10.8 rebounds a game. However, the junior seemingly brings his A-game against the Rebels. In both games against the rivals, West is averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds a game. West did the most damage with second-chance opportunities, grabbing 20 offensive rebounds during the series.
The 6-foot-11 Wood has been a monster all year long. The sophomore is averaging 15.2 points and 10.1 rebounds a game this season, which coincides with his averages against the Wolf Pack in both meetings (16.5 points and 12 rebounds).
Motivation certainly isn’t lacking for West going into the game.
“We have a lot to lose,” West said. “We want to win and I know the team wants to win … We feel like we already lost most the fans and community, so we just want to play as hard as we can for each other.”
The winner of the first-round matchup will face the second-seeded San Diego State on Thursday in the second round. The Aztecs remain the lone MWC team Nevada has failed to defeat since joining the conference three years ago. While UNLV’s rivalry with San Diego State runs parallel with Nevada’s (if not trumps it), with both games between the two this year being decided by a combined eight points.
For all the lows the Wolf Pack have endured throughout the season, its season-long goal — a conference championship — remains intact. The four-day MWC Tournament is Nevada’s blank slate and chance to right its wrongs.
“If we win four games in a row, we’re going to accomplish what we originally planned to do this season,” Fenner said.
Eric Uribe can be reached email@example.com and on Twitter @Uribe_Eric.