Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 | 10:30 p.m.
It’s a small victory to make an opponent bend to your will and play your style for 40 minutes. But the big victory is still counted on the scoreboard, and despite playing the most Wyoming-style game possible, UNLV came out on top in a plodding 48-46 victory tonight against the Cowboys.
“It was real ugly,” Rebels senior Kevin Olekaibe said.
Wyoming (14-9, 5-5) had lost its league defeats by an average of four points each and came in as the sixth-slowest team in the country, according to kenpom.com. So as unsightly as this might have been, it didn’t surprise the Rebels (16-8, 7-4), who saw this type of game over and over on film.
“Every play we watched, we saw the shot clock was down,” Olekaibe said. “… We knew what they were coming in to do.”
Even though the pace was advantageous to Wyoming, the Rebels never trailed in the final 38 minutes. They survived a bad first half with a little help from the Cowboys’ 10 turnovers and then regrouped at the break with a 22-20 lead.
UNLV coach Dave Rice pointed out how much more effective the Rebels are when they get post touches, and the team responded by shooting 54.5 percent from the field in the second half. The Rebels attempted only two 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes after going 2-for-11 in the first half.
“We didn’t settle in the second half,” Rice said.
Olekaibe hit a 3-pointer with 6:43 remaining to go up by seven — the largest lead of the game — but it was short-lived. Wyoming had an answer for nearly every UNLV shot in the final minutes, thanks largely to its star Larry Nance Jr. and outside shooter Riley Grabau.
Nance was hobbled by an ankle injury early in the game and spent most of his 38 minutes on the court wincing and walking gingerly. Still, it didn’t stop him from finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
“I can already submit my (all-conference) ballot and put Nance on the ballot,” Rice said. “He’ll be in the NBA in a couple of years.”
Possibly because of how well he was playing, including a block where he met Roscoe Smith above the rim and came down controlling the ball, some Rebels didn’t notice he was hurting.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen him, so I don’t know how he walks or nothin’,” said Smith, who had eight points and nine rebounds.
Nance and Grabau combined for 16 of Wyoming’s 26 second-half points. And when it came time for the final play, there was little doubt one of them would have the ball in his hands.
Grabau cut the deficit to two with just more than a minute remaining, and the Rebels ran down the clock instead of going for a two-for-one. They never got off a shot as Deville Smith committed a turnover, his first, in the lane with a little more than 30 seconds remaining.
Wyoming called a timeout with 15.5 seconds left. Based on the Cowboys’ many close games this season, the Rebels were confident they knew what was coming.
“We knew they were going to try to do a weave play,” Roscoe Smith said. “We knew Larry Nance was going to get the ball.”
The Cowboys got the ball to Nance in the lane, and he got an OK look at a short hook shot with Khem Birch in his face. The ball bounced off the rim and the Rebels exhaled, content to survive this one. With 10 points, Birch was the only Rebel to finish in double-figure scoring, though four other Rebels scored at least eight.
A common joke around teams as slow-paced as Wyoming is that the first team to 50 points wins. Tonight, neither team was able to make that happen.
“We combined for 94 points. That’s a pretty exciting deal,” Rice joked.
This is the fewest points UNLV has scored in a victory since a 46-43 home win against Air Force in 2009.
For all the hand wringing about the program, the Rebels find themselves tied for third place (UNR) with a week to prepare for their first trip to Utah State since 1996, when both were members of the Big West.
No one is likely going to catch San Diego State or New Mexico, which are a combined 18-1 in league play, but UNLV controls its destiny for third. That’s not saying a ton in a down year for the Mountain West, and it probably makes people think more about what could have been if not for late-game collapses against UNR and Air Force or the no-show at Colorado State.
Still, it’s something for the Rebels to play for, even when that play is ugly.