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Wade Vandervort

UNLV Rebels head coach Kevin Kruger reacts to a call during the second half of a college basketball game against the Creighton Bluejays at The Dollar Loan Center in Henderson Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Fort Collins, Colo. — 

At the top of the Mountain West, the margins are thin. One player can make the difference in a close, hard-fought game, especially if he’s a closer.

On Friday, Colorado State had Isaiah Stevens and UNLV didn’t.

The senior point guard took over down the stretch, making tough shots and dishing out timely assists to help his Rams erase a 10-point second-half deficit to knock off upset-minded UNLV, 78-75.

For most of the night, it looked like the Scarlet and Gray were going to earn their second straight road victory over a Mountain West contender, as they bullied Colorado State under the basket and generally appeared to be the more physical team. But CSU stayed within striking distance by making 10 3-point shots, and when it came time to sprint to the finish line, Stevens snatched the baton.

The fifth-year point guard scored or assisted on 16 of Colorado State’s final 20 points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:35 remaining. The only four points during that stretch without Stevens’ fingerprints on them were four free throws in the final minute, when UNLV began intentionally fouling.

UNLV did a good job limiting Stevens for the first 34 minutes, but Keylan Boone credited him for rising to the occasion with the game on the line.

“The best player, he found open shots,” Boone said. “That’s a lack of discipline on our end. We’ve got to do better. Just a little more mental toughness at the end.”

Stevens finished with 18 points and seven assists in a classic stats-don’t-tell-the-whole-story performance.

Kevin Kruger said once Stevens figured out how UNLV was defending him, he kept making the right play.

“We got a little flat-footed,” Kruger said. “We just didn’t quite have that same activity level when they went to that high ball screen late.”

It was a disappointing outcome for UNLV, which appears to have turned a corner after stumbling through nonconference play. Boone and Jackie Johnson combined for 21 first-half points to stake UNLV to a 39-32 lead at the break, and when Kalib Boone sank two free throws to make it 52-42 with 13 minutes remaining, the visitors had their largest lead.

Stevens immediately drove for a basket, then assisted on two fast-break layups to get the Rams back within 52-48.

UNLV committed two turnovers to fuel that pivotal stretch; the Scarlet and Gray gave it away 11 times in the second half after a perfect first half with zero turnovers.

“Eleven turnovers in a half is going to do you in against pretty much everybody,” Kruger said.

Keylan Boone finished with 21 points to lead UNLV. D.J. Thomas posted 11 points and eight assists.

UNLV is 9-8 overall and 2-3 in conference play, with the last three Mountain West games having been decided by four points or fewer.

Boone believes if his team continues to play well, the record will eventually reflect it.

“I knew we were fighters,” Boone said. “We’re starting to see it, we’re starting to understand it. Now it’s just finishing out games and understanding late-game principles.”

And when Colorado State comes to Las Vegas for the rematch on Feb. 24, Kruger will once again try to stop him from making the difference.

“Stevens made some big plays,” Kruger said. “Of course I’d love to go back and maybe change something up, do something different, but he just kind of has that presence. He’s a great player. He’s going to be one of the best players to ever play in the Mountain West.

“It’s a tough loss, of course, but we’ll watch [the film] and get ready for him next time.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun