Jerilee Bennett/Gazette/Associated Press
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 10:40 p.m.
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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Ask anyone around college basketball, including the Rebels, about the Air Force offense and one of the first things you will hear about are backdoor cuts. UNLV puts more time into defending that simple move — crashing to the basket with a defender on your back hip — leading into these games than anything else it works on.
How, then, do the Rebels (18-7, 5-5) explain giving up at least four easy, almost completely uncontested layups off that move Wednesday night at Clune Arena in the first half alone?
“There’s not really much to say,” UNLV’s Katin Reinhardt said.
Added senior Anthony Marshall, “I can’t even put it into words.”
Ask a UNLV fan right now and they’ll have plenty of words, though most of them are unprintable. Allowing those plays wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Rebels in a 71-56 dismantling by the Falcons (15-8, 6-4). No, that list stretches halfway back to Las Vegas. But it was the first thing, the first sign that this game wouldn’t go any better than the last three conference road games and that it may even be worse.
It was like removing the first Jenga piece and bringing the whole tower down with it.
Air Force deserves credit for how both teams played. While the Rebels looked lost from the beginning, the Falcons enforced their will with those cuts, knocking down open shots and a healthy dose of Michael Lyons.
The senior guard beat at least three different UNLV defenders for his first four made baskets and finished with a game-high 27 points. He also had four assists to one turnover while fellow seniors Mike Fitzgerald (18 points, eight rebounds) and Todd Fletcher (eight points, five assists, one turnover) also had stellar efforts.
It’s very possible that even if UNLV had played well it would have lost this game. But UNLV didn’t play well. Not even close.
“We knew they were going to play like they did and we did not match what they brought,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “That’s absolutely inexcusable.”
The final numbers are ugly — outscored 13-0 on fast breaks, outrebounded 35-24, 5-for-19 on 3-point attempts — yet they don’t even do the performance justice. On the way to the arena, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Savon Goodman were late for the bus, so Rice benched the former. Once the game started Reinhardt scored 13 of the team’s first 15 points, and just like they said they couldn’t do before the game, the Rebels appeared to let their offensive struggles impact their defense.
“We allowed that to affect our identity like we’ve done the last number of games on the road,” Rice said.
Reinhardt finished with 15 points, all of them in the first half, and took only one shot after going down with a left shoulder injury early in the second half. He had ice on the shoulder after the game and said, “It’s hurting really bad.”
You don’t have to be a body-language expert to tell which team was trailing by double digits without looking at the scoreboard. The frustration boiled over for freshman Anthony Bennett (eight points, eight rebounds) with less than 12 minutes to play.
After Dejean-Jones made a layup to cut the lead to 17, Bennett grabbed the ball and flung it into Lyons’ chest from a couple of feet away. It was an easy technical foul to call and Rice sat his freshman star for the remainder of the game.
“We can’t have those kind of plays,” Rice said. “The way I’m building this program is it’s all got to be about team, and that’s not a team play.”
A teaching moment? Maybe, but based on the way they played Bennett may not have wanted to be on the court any more than anyone else. About a minute after the technical Air Force pushed the lead to 24, the largest deficit of the season for a UNLV team that once more returns home hoping to pick up the pieces.
That went well the first time, resulting in a 64-55 victory against New Mexico. On Saturday the Rebels host San Diego State (18-6, 6-4), which is coming off a close loss at Colorado State. The league’s preseason co-favorites are both reeling right now.
The Aztecs’ main excuse is the lower back injury to point guard Xavier Thames, who has been in and out of the lineup. After this particular game, the Rebels don’t have one.
“The coaching staff did a great job with the scouting report; we knew everything they were going to do,” Marshall said. “But as you see they still got us with it.”
Added Rice, “That is not executing properly the game plan that is set forth. We knew, and you could talk to every single guy on our team, and they knew exactly what Air Force does in terms of back doors.”
UNLV is back to even in the league, falling back to three games behind New Mexico and wiping away the ground it made up Saturday. After last week’s Fresno State loss Rice seemed stunned. After the embarrassment at Air Force he was angry.
The Rebels already proved that in the Thomas & Mack Center they can bounce back from a game like this. But as the road woes continue — UNLV is 3-10 away from home in league play under Rice — the concerns branch out beyond one collection of missed assignments and reach the larger systemic issues leading to the Rebels once again fading down the stretch.
“It’s time for our program to grow up and accept the fact that we’re going to play Runnin’ Rebel basketball,” Rice said. “We’re going to build a program with those who choose to be part of it, and those who don’t, we’ll wish them well and we’ll move on.”