Jeremy Rincon / Ballislife
Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 | 10 p.m.
The most nerve-wracking two minutes of a thrilling night at Taco Bell Arena involved not a single shot or rebound. Instead it featured three referees, one flat screen and two teams waiting for the roller coaster to pull back into the station.
Lead official Randy McCall and his team gathered around the replay screen, retreated to midcourt and then headed back to the screen. About a minute earlier, it was McCall who bounced off the baseline and emphatically threw down his right arm to count Deville Smith’s last-second 3-pointer.
When the referees went to the replay, UNLV coach Dave Rice had a 93-91 overtime victory. By the time McCall called the coaches toward him and gave his ruling, it was Boise State’s Leon Rice celebrating a 91-90 triumph.
It was a fitting end for an exciting game with many twists and turns. The Rebels just wished things had twisted their way.
“It’s unfortunate that someone had to lose,” Dave Rice said, “and it’s especially unfortunate that we had to lose because our kids played their hearts out.
“… We deserved to win just like Boise deserved to win. It’s a difficult pill to swallow.”
Boise State’s second-leading scorer, Derrick Marks, took over in overtime with all 13 of the Broncos’ points. His final shot, a 10-foot jumper in the lane, left the Rebels (17-10, 8-6) with 3.3 seconds and no timeouts.
Smith, who led UNLV with 22 points, curled around and caught the inbounds pass heading toward his offensive basket. He knew he had little time, probably only enough to get a little across half court and then heave. He weaved through a couple of defenders and pulled up beyond the 3-point line for the Rebels’ final shot.
“I felt like I got it off in time,” Smith said.
His teammates agreed as they mobbed him on the court. It was a familiar scene to the Broncos (18-9, 8-6), who blew a big lead against UNLV last time and then lost to San Diego State on a last-second shot the next time out.
“Just that feeling, watching them rush the court, tackling each other; it was like, 'Here we go again,'” said Boise State’s Ryan Watkins, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds. “When they went to go check, I was like, 'We have a chance.'”
Both benches were looking into the stands or to the media members on the opposite side of the court for clues. When McCall finally made his declaration, the entire arena knew who won by Leon Rice’s reaction.
“I really couldn’t contain it, to tell you the truth,” Leon Rice said. “It’s just such a brilliant game and a cruel game when it comes down to that. We feel great because that ball was in his hands .01 longer and then UNLV feels awful. They played a great game.”
McCall said that standard protocol requires the officials to look first at the clock above the basket, then the red light around the backboard, and if neither of those is clear they can use the end-of-game horn. There was a lot of confusion at the end because the red light never went off, but McCall said that didn’t matter because they didn’t need to go to step two.
“In this case, we got the clock to double zeros, we walked it frame by frame to double zeros, we stopped it at double zeros, we went back and magnified where the ball was and the ball was on the shooters’ fingertips, so we had a reversal of the call by rule,” McCall said.
This wouldn’t have mattered had a few other things gone right. The Rebels could have made more free throws (6-for-13 in the second half) and not turned the ball over in the final 40 seconds, or Smith could have finished his first potential game-winner.
The Broncos trailed by seven with 3:30 remaining — a similar situation to UNLV’s 11-point comeback in the first meeting — and by five with 50 seconds left. Anthony Drmic (22 points) drilled a tough 3-pointer to cut it to two and Marks stole the inbounds pass from Bryce Dejean-Jones, setting up Watkins’ game-tying free throws.
The Rebels countered with one final shot, and it was a good one. Khem Birch came out and set a high ball screen for Smith, who drove straight at the rim and missed at point-blank range, although he said he thought he was fouled on the play. The play started too late for UNLV to have a chance at an offensive rebound and putback.
“I should have made the first one,” Smith said.
This game will be remembered for the replay and the celebrations it both set off and canceled. That’s understandable but it’s also too bad. This was a great offensive showcase with moments of great defense.
Watkins displayed great touch around the rim, and Drmic was a matchup problem for the Rebels all night. Then there was Smith’s excellent second half and Birch, who had 16 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks, affecting every shot in the lane whether he got a hand on it or not. Birch was the biggest reason Marks looked pedestrian until overtime; it took him that long to figure out how to attack the big man.
Smith had a hard time making sense of the decision.
"I can’t even explain the feeling," he said.
Birch was also still in disbelief when he spoke after the game. He had enough time to briefly check his phone, and the tweets told him the Rebels should have won.
“People were saying we got robbed,” he said. “I’ll have to check it out tonight. Maybe I’ll change my mind.”
To a degree, Birch and the Rebels will be able to see what they want to see. But for most the final conclusion was that Smith was inches away from the game-winner. Inches that swung the outcome and brought a frantic finish to a fun game.