Jeremy Rincon / Ballislife
Saturday, March 8, 2014 | 11:10 p.m.
By the time Deonte Burton soared through the air for his one mandatory highlight dunk per game, the Rebels’ 17-point second-half lead was already history. It disappeared almost as quickly as it had come, and though UNLV was in this game until the very end, it’s the inability to play well with that lead that will haunt the Rebels after another thriller that was more exciting for the opponent.
These close losses are old hat for a Rebels team that finishes the regular season at 5-7 in games decided by seven points or less. The specifics are always slightly different yet familiar, like Burton again playing a great game and leading the Wolf Pack to a 76-72 victory and the No. 3 seed in next week’s Mountain West tournament.
“That’s what great players do,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “They put the team on their back and they lead.”
The loss means the Rebels (19-12, 10-8) finished tied for third with UNR (15-16, 10-8) and will be the 4 seed in next week’s Mountain West tournament with an afternoon game Thursday against Wyoming. The winner of that game would most likely face league champ San Diego State in the semifinals.
Burton scored 16 in the second half and finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists with no turnovers. One year after suffering through a 3-13 Mountain West record, Burton stuck around to improve his draft stock and help UNR complete only the fourth in-state sweep against UNLV in program history.
“It’s lovely,” Burton said. “It’s amazing how you can turn a season around in one year.”
Despite playing without two regular starters and with Khem Birch hurting because of a hip flexor injury, the Rebels played great to start both halves and held double-digit leads multiple times. Their problem was an inability to hold onto those leads, but it was through a lack of execution, not effort.
Birch missed eight first-half shots as he tried to spin left through the pain in his left hip but grabbed a ton of those misses for putback attempts. By the end he had a career-high 22 rebounds — enough to give him a double-double average for the season — and 15 points with four blocks.
“I’m not shocked (I played well),” Birch said. “I’m not being cocky. I’m just old school at heart regardless of the situation, even if I’m injured.”
In the end, UNLV probably would have felt good going down swinging with the ball in Birch’s hands. And that was sort of the plan.
Birch tied the game on a nice spin move with 1:19 left and missed the ensuing free throw, one of two misses for him at the line tonight. UNR missed its next shot and Birch grabbed the rebound but turned it over by sliding out of bounds.
The Wolf Pack put the ball in Burton’s hands and he misfired, but Cole Huff, who finished with 22 points and seven rebounds, grabbed the miss and made the putback.
Out of timeouts, the Rebels came down looking for a reverse ball screen to get the ball to Jelan Kendrick, who Rice said was then going to feed it into Birch. Before that happened, Kendrick hoisted a 3-pointer from the corner and missed off the far side of the rim. Christian Wood grabbed the rebound, but his short jumper was blocked and never made it to the rim, leaving UNR with a tie-up and the ability to ice the game at the free-throw line.
“I’m disappointed for our team,” Rice said, “because our guys battled their hearts out.”
UNLV opened the game on a 12-2 run and began the second half on a 13-2 run. Starting in place of suspended guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, Kendrick had one of the best games of his season with 16 points, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers, and six rebounds in 33 minutes. Deville Smith was also good for long stretches, as was Daquan Cook off the bench.
The problem was the stretches when that all disappeared, like after the timeout near the 16-minute when Burton rallied his troops down 17.
“I thought I had to take the game over, put the ball in my hands and make plays,” Burton said.
He did, and the Wolf Pack followed. They came out of that break in a full-court press and a zone defense that both caused all kinds of problems for UNLV. On the 10 possessions after the Rebels took a that 17-point lead, they shot 1-for-4 on 3s, 0-for-2 on 2s and committed four turnovers that led to six points for UNR.
“We didn’t even shoot the ball sometimes,” Birch said of the turnovers. “Give credit to their coach for putting in the zone.”
Junior forward Roscoe Smith, who’s missed the past two games because of a concussion, is expected to return to practice Monday. It’s unclear whether he or Birch will be at 100 percent by Thursday’s game, and then there’s Dejean-Jones’ situation.
“We’ve got to make sure Roscoe’s back at full strength, and I’ll meet with Bryce on Monday,” Rice said.
Dejean-Jones will most likely be reinstated, though no one can say for certain. The bottom line is UNLV will head back to its home arena on a two-game losing streak and with four losses in the past six. This isn’t the kind of momentum any of the Rebels were talking about, and the questions about injuries and suspensions only add to the disarray.
Still, one or two plays the other way at the end and the Rebels could have escaped with a win. And optimists could point out that UNLV should get better with the return of its starters and gets to face a Wyoming team missing its best player, Larry Nance.
Rice is certainly an optimist. It’s why he can keep talking about how much basketball there is left to play, even as the season has been shrinking away without solid signs it will continue much longer.
He still believes the Rebels can win three games in three days, and only the final buzzer with his opponent celebrating will convince him otherwise.
“It’s all still there for us,” Rice said.