Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 | 7:30 p.m.
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SAN DIEGO — In a building that at this point must seem like a haunted house, the No. 12 UNLV basketball team made key mistakes you are supposed to avoid on the road.
The Rebels came out flat. They missed free throws. They failed to give the crowd much reason to sit down.
And yet, despite all of the lapses and mistakes, Saturday's road game still went down to the final possession with No. 22 San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference opener. But even then the Rebels couldn’t get out of their own way.
A defensive miscommunication left San Diego State forward Jamaal Franklin free near the three-point line with about six seconds left. From there he attacked the rim, crossing over UNLV’s Mike Moser in the process, and hit a short leaner for the winning points Saturday in a 69-67 victory at Viejas Arena.
“It came down to one possession,” said UNLV guard Anthony Marshall, who single-handedly kept the Rebels alive in the second half. “… It just so happened the ball bounced their way.”
Less than a minute before his game-winning shot, Franklin was hobbled at the opposite end of the court when he came down awkwardly on an ankle and had to leave the game. He came back in with 37 seconds left and missed a contested shot in the corner.
UNLV, trailing 67-66, brought the ball down and dished it inside to Brice Massamba, who drew a foul under the basket.
In the first half, which was arguably the worst 20 minutes that the Rebels (16-3, 0-1) have played this season, they were hesitant to throw the ball into the post, instead taking, and missing, open shots.
Coach Dave Rice said that was one of the key changes at halftime.
“We put more of an emphasis on throwing the ball in the post, we thought we had an advantage,” Rice said. “We seemed to a be a little tentative in the first half. That’s a credit to San Diego State.”
Massamba shot 3-for-4 in the second half and seemed to solidify himself as the primary center in crunch time. Still, with a chance to put UNLV in the lead on two free throws with 23.6 seconds left, he missed the first one.
Free throws hadn’t been much of an issue to this point in the season. Before Saturday, the team shot 70.8 percent. Against SDSU (15-2, 1-0), though, they hit 11-of-21.
The players said they don’t feel like they play any different against the Aztecs, but their shooting — 35 percent from the field, 30 percent from the three-point line and 52 percent at the free-throw line — suggests otherwise. This is the fourth straight loss in San Diego, the sixth consecutive overall and ninth out of the last 10.
But after the game the Rebels said it was just one loss.
“We made a lot of mental mistakes and just wasn’t able to come back from them,” UNLV’s Chace Stanback said.
Massamba came through with the second free throw, setting up the final possession.
After nearly creating a turnover in the backcourt, UNLV guard Oscar Bellfield hustled back on defense while Thames passed the ball up to Franklin on the right side of the perimeter.
Franklin, with Moser guarding him, then handed the ball off to Thames and set a screen. In that moment, despite every misstep and missed shot, UNLV still had a chance.
But the Rebels made one more mistake.
“If there was a screen, we were supposed to switch it,” Moser said. “Miscommunication and the guy ended up finishing.”
Instead of switching, Moser moving over to defend Thames and Bellfield staying with Franklin, both players trailed Thames.
That left Franklin wide open. Once Thames dished it back to him, Franklin, hobbled ankle and all, drove the lane around a reeling Moser and pulled up for a short shot in front of crashing defenders.
“I could swear they were going to call a timeout,” Moser said. “That was a heads up play for him to turn the corner like he did.”
The threat of a kick out to Chase Tapley in the corner kept Marshall from being able to provide much help.
“We felt we had a chance to win the game, we were all confident and it just came down to one play,” Marshall said. “We didn’t get the defensive stop at the end.”
Marshall scored a game-high 26 points, including 18 in the second half. He was the only Rebel to score in double digits as Moser and Massamba each scored nine. Moser also had a game-high 12 rebounds.
After scoring just seven points on Saturday, Stanback finished his three-game career at San Diego State shooting 7-of-33.
While the Rebels tried to rely on their depth, the Aztecs played five guys at least 31 minutes. Their two leading scorers, Franklin (24 points) and James Rohan (22) each played all but two minutes.
After the game, Franklin deflected attention to everything that led up to his game-winner.
“There were other things happening other than me making that last shot,” Franklin said. “James Rahon shot the ball really well, Chase did as well, Garrett (Green) with rebounds and Tim (Shelton) took charges as he always does.
“It’s more than that last shot.”
Rice could be saying the same thing to his guys. The mistakes were more than the missed defensive assignment on that last shot.
The good news for UNLV is that if you want to blame the poor outing on either eight days in between games or the Rebels tormented recent history in San Diego, neither of those will be an issue the rest of the way.
The bad news, besides just the loss, is that their leading scorer (Stanback) disappeared in arguably the biggest game of the season. And one player (Marshall) won’t be enough to get a victory against teams like San Diego State. Especially not on the road.
“It hurts a lot,” Marshall said. “… We’re going to keep this in the back of our mind, but at the same time get better. This game is not going to dictate the conference.”
True, but based on their plethora of problems, the notice is out that the conference is not the Rebels’ to lose.