Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 16, 2013 | 8 p.m.
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It’s tough to say what moment from Saturday’s Mountain West tournament title game was worse for UNLV fans. Was it Tony Snell’s game-clinching 3-pointer with just more than a minute to play? Kendall Williams’ exclamation point, a 360-degree dunk?
Or maybe it was Steve Alford, the Mountain West Coach of the Year and one of the most hated sports figures in Las Vegas, cutting down one Thomas & Mack Center net and wearing it around the court and into the postgame press conference for a second straight year.
Then again, it could be none of those. New Mexico (29-5) just did what it was supposed to do; it was the Rebels (25-9) who didn’t hold up their end in a 63-56 loss that could have NCAA Tournament seeding implications.
The "Selection Show" is Sunday at 3 p.m. on CBS. While the Lobos likely locked up a 2 seed or better, UNLV may have played itself down to a 7 seed, although a 6 is still in play. If the Rebels are unhappy with their seed or location, they have only themselves to blame for not capitalizing on Saturday’s opportunity.
“The thing that was most disappointing,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, “was that our ball movement was not nearly as good as it’s been.”
That manifested itself in some bizarre numbers for the Rebels. Freshman Anthony Bennett came into the game on a tear — 42 points on 16-for-22 shooting in the tournament — and continued it early on, scoring 13 of UNLV’s 15 points before the 12-minute mark. Then he scored one basket the rest of the way as Cameron Bairstow, Chad Adams and even Williams took turns shadowing Bennett.
“That wasn’t coaching,” Alford said. “That’s who our team is. That’s a great credit to our players.”
Then there was this: Tournament MVP Snell, who finished with 21 points, and regular season MVP Williams combined for 33 points on 22 shots. UNLV counterparts Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt scored 30 on 32 attempts.
All of those empty possessions made keeping pace with the efficient Lobos difficult, yet there the Rebels were down only three with 2:07 remaining. Dejean-Jones hit back-to-back 3-pointers while doing his best to provide UNLV with much-needed scoring.
Once Bennett vanished, the Rebels took turns trying to lead the offense. Reinhardt had a few good possessions but his 4-for-16 overall shooting negated that.
“No one man is going to beat a team like that,” said Anthony Marshall, who had eight points and six assists. “There might be spurts where somebody has a hot hand and you just try to figure out who that is.”
After Bennett’s initial run the Rebels’ hands were all cold. No Rebel shot better than 50 percent, including Mike Moser, who completed a wretched tournament for his shooting (4-for-19 overall) with an 0-for-4.
“I’ve said many times that he’s still not 100 percent,” Rice said. “There are still plays that he can’t make; finishing around the basket or some rebounds that he typically gets that are out of his area that he can’t quite get to.”
When the deficit was still at three the Rebels forced a Snell turnover and had a chance to get it to one or tie the game. Not surprisingly they went for the 3-point attempt and Reinhardt’s good look at the rim missed.
What followed was the aforementioned Snell dagger; your view of how he got open probably depends on your rooting interest.
With Dejean-Jones guarding him in the corner, Snell ran the Rebel off a screen in the paint set by Alex Kirk. The Lobos made their living with screens like this.
“They’re probably the best screening team in our league,” Rice said. “They’re very, very good at that.”
However, plenty of them looked like moving picks. This particular one was debatable, but Dejean-Jones spent so much time trying to sell the foul and then looking at the ref that he took himself out of the play, allowing Snell, already on fire from deep, to run free to the top of the key.
“They kept trying to stay close on me,” Snell said of the Rebels. “I tried to stop and give a little bump to give me some space to run off the screens.”
New Mexico hit the same number of 3s as UNLV (9-for-31) in 12 fewer attempts. And despite dominating the offensive glass by 10 the Rebels only scored one more second-chance point.
The best example of that wasteful offense was on one possession early in the second half. It went: Bennett missed 3-pointer, Quintrell Thomas offensive rebound, Reinhardt missed 3, Thomas rebound, Reinhardt missed jumper, Thomas rebound, Bennett turnover.
“(We’ll) get back to playing more efficient, better offense,” Rice said.
The Rebels’ chance to do that will be Thursday or Friday in one of eight cities across the country against a currently unknown opponent. That’s the bright side to the defeat: UNLV was already in the field of 68. They will go dancing while looking for their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2008.
When adversity hits again — and whether it’s the first game or the second, it will — how will UNLV respond? The Rebels know how to finish the phrase “Live by the 3…” and a good game plan can’t be overly dependent on Dejean-Jones or Reinhardt catching fire from outside. They’re proven to be far too streaky for that.
The other bright spot in this game, according to Rice, was that despite all of its mistakes UNLV had a chance to win in the final two minutes. That perseverance is something they’ll need, along with a better performance in the first 38 minutes.
“We’ll never quit playing until the final buzzer sounds,” Rice said, “whenever that is.”