Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 10:40 p.m.
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There’s no glory for teams that go more than 11 minutes without making a field goal in the NCAA Tournament. There’s no parade coming, no more extra attention that comes with playing on the sport’s biggest stage. And there’s not much sympathy, either.
UNLV had far more chances than it earned Thursday evening at the HP Pavilion. The Rebels started both halves poorly, never looked comfortable against Cal’s zone defense and yet it was a two possession game for most of the final five minutes. The miracle comeback was within reach until it wasn’t, when the Rebels (25-10) walked off the court losers in the Round of 64 for the fourth consecutive year. The 64-61 final was closer than the game.
You can compare the four straight tournament losses if you want but to the Rebels they all belong in the same bonfire. Just toss on another log.
“Losing sucks, no matter who it’s with or when it was, it just sucks,” junior Mike Moser said. “It’s the worst thing in the world.”
In the aftermath the Rebels are awash in uncertainty. They will lose three players for sure in seniors Quintrell Thomas, Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins. The latter two played in all four of those losses, in the process becoming answers to a trivia question no one wants to be associated with. Who are the only Rebels to go to four straight NCAA Tournaments and go 0-4?
“Got to be a man and live with it,” Marshall said from the team’s makeshift locker room, where there weren’t many tears.
And there are decisions to be made for at least three more Rebels. Anthony Bennett, a projected NBA lottery pick, finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, his 12th double-double of the season. About half of those points came in the final five minutes, and all of them were inside the three-point line.
“When I noticed it was much easier inside I tried to work my way inside and develop my game there,” Bennett said.
As he has said all year, including the day before this game, Bennett said after the game that he hadn’t made a decision on the NBA yet. UNLV coach Dave Rice gives the players a few days away before holding end-of-year meetings, at which point everyone expects all parties to agree it’s in Bennett’s best interest to jump.
Moser, who nearly left for the NBA draft last season, said he didn’t yet have a timetable for his decision to leave or stay. And redshirt junior Carlos Lopez-Sosa, who didn’t play against Cal, is scheduled to graduate in May, so he can stay, take grad courses that aren’t offered at UNLV and play somewhere else right away or just leave with his degree and possibly play professionally in Puerto Rico.
There’s also the ever-present chance of transfers, though with so many guys leaving most of the returning players know they would have a leg up for available minutes on the incoming group.
Those are the things UNLV will deal with in the coming weeks. Until then they are left to stew, although they have some Mountain West company. No. 14 Harvard felled No. 3 New Mexico, the regular season and tournament champ, later Thursday night and No. 13 Boise State had already lost Wednesday. So far No. 8 Colorado State’s victory against No. 9 Missouri is the only notch for the Mountain West, with No. 7 San Diego State’s matchup with former UNLV coach Lon Kruger’s No. 10 Sooners on tap Friday.
Those are messes for other coaches to clean up. The Rebels only had control of their own game, and there were plenty of decisions that will be second-guessed in the near future.
For example, Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Khem Birch tied for third in school history in NCAA Tournament games with four blocks in the first half. Then he played six minutes in the second half, a decision Rice said was to get Moser’s high-post, potentially zone-busting jumper in while sacrificing Birch’s defense.
His absence became all the more apparent as Golden Bears (21-11) forwards Robert Thurman and Richard Solomon combined for 23 points. Thurman was 6-for-6, all of them dunks.
“Of course it’s frustrating because I’m a defensive guy, but there’s nothing you can do,” Birch said.
UNLV’s advantage in the front court was one of a few pregame storylines that didn’t play to script. It’s not like Cal’s bigs just dominated UNLV, though. Allen Crabbe, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists, created almost all of their opportunities.
With elementary school friend Bryce Dejean-Jones trying to shut him down, Crabbe scored on the same play — a curl toward the lane off a down screen near the baseline — twice to start the second half and never cooled off.
“Once he got going we knew we had to pay so much more attention to him,” Moser said. “That’s what gets a guy like Thurman six dunks when he averages, what, probably like four points a game?”
Thurman, who scored six points in the first meeting on Dec. 9, came in averaging 4.5 points per game.
“He can go shake Crabbe’s hand for that one.”
Cal advances to play No. 4 Syracuse on Saturday.
Another storyline that didn’t come to fruition was the perceived home-court advantage for the lower seed. The crowd wasn’t overwhelmingly pro-Cal, and the fouls were lopsided to the Rebels. Going into the final minute UNLV had 21 attempts to Cal’s four, though neither team did much with those opportunities as both missed nine freebies.
That stretch from a Katin Reinhardt 3-pointer with 16:32 remaining to a Bennett layup with five minutes left should have effectively ended the game. The stat line reads like a horror story: 0-for-16 from the field, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers, four missed layups and a botched dunk that led directly to a 3-pointer at the other end.
Yet by the end of that stretch they were only down six, and if not for a late whistle that evaporated precious seconds when UNLV was clearly trying to foul, the Rebels may have had a decent shot at a miracle.
They can’t complain about that, though. Breaks are earned. A combined 9-for-29 shooting night from Reinhardt and Dejean-Jones that was littered with contested shots and open heaves from beyond NBA range doesn’t apply. Neither does the defense that allowed Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, to run free.
“We’ll be back,” Rice said.
Few doubt that. The bigger concern is how is the next one going to be different and not another log in the fire.