Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010 | 2:30 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss just what went wrong for UNLV in a 73-69 loss to Utah on Saturday night at the Mack, which was the Utes' first victory over the Rebels on their home floor since 2005. Plus, how will the Rebels fare in an upcoming four-game stretch and who is most likely to emerge as the much-needed third consistent offensive threat?
In winning back-to-back Mountain West Conference games following a tough road loss at BYU, UNLV's Tre'Von Willis and Chace Stanback proved they could develop into the league's premier one-two scoring punch.
But in the aftermath of a disappointing 73-69 loss Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center to up-and-down Utah, it's clear that a third consistent, reliable offensive producer needs to emerge.
The duo combined for more than 40 points for the second consecutive game, but no one else was able to step up and provide offense late as the Rebels sputtered down the stretch against a strong defensive ball club. Instead, UNLV (14-4 overall, 2-2 MWC) watched the Utes ice it from the free-throw line.
"These guys, they've been carrying us on their backs the whole season, and it just can't be those two," freshman guard Anthony Marshall said of Stanback and Willis. "It has to be a team effort. Somebody else has got to step up."
Willis, who at one point scored 13 consecutive first-half points, finished with a game-high 27 along with six rebounds and four assists. He's now averaging a league-best 23.5 points in Mountain West games.
Stanback had 14 points and 10 rebounds, giving him the team's first double-double of the season.
But other than those two, offensive prowess was sparse.
Derrick Jasper scored four quick points, but the rest of his night was thrown for a loop because of foul trouble. He ultimately fouled out after playing a season-low 15 minutes.
As for 3-point gunner Kendall Wallace, the Utes were onto his act, shadowing him for almost every second of the 16 minutes he played. He was scoreless and only got off one long-range attempt. In fact, the Rebels were just 1-of-12 from deep.
On top of that, Oscar Bellfield also saw heavy defensive pressure in the backcourt, and none of the Rebels' big men were able to create for themselves against Utah's mammoth front line.
"They're a good club defensively," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "They're long and rangy, even on the perimeter. They're a good defensive club that gets to shooters, and they did a great job."
For a moment in the second half, it appeared as if Marshall was ready to fill the team's need for at third option on offense.
With 7:43 left in the game and UNLV trailing, 55-51, the Utah defense once again successfully had taken the Rebels out of their set, thanks to a combination of 7-foot-3 center David Foster's overall presence and the perimeter defenders' abilities to rotate and switch consistently.
But Marshall, with the offense in disarray at the moment and the shot clock dwindling, stormed toward the basket from the right wing.
He weaved under the hoop, rose up and did a 180-degree turn in mid-air, slamming home a two-handed dunk in Foster's face.
A crowd of 16,594 — the largest at the Mack this season — rose to provide a deafening roar, and it only got louder after Marshall grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end and Willis tied it up with a tough layup on the other end.
"I know what my role is on the team. It's to provide energy and give us a spark whenever I can," said Marshall, who finished with seven points, four rebounds and two blocks. "In the first half, I wasn't able to do that, so in the second half, I wanted to come in and be able to be aggressive."
But, as was the case all night long, the Rebels couldn't carry that momentum, and before they knew it they found themselves trailing in the closing minutes.
In a Feb. 6 loss to BYU that opened conference play and a 10-point victory Wednesday over San Diego State, what helped UNLV's opponents keep things close was the Rebels' inability to keep their opponents inactive on the offensive glass.
That problem was taken care of, and it showed right from go. After allowing their first three league opponents to grab an average of 15.3 offensive rebounds, UNLV held Utah (9-8, 2-1) to just eight.
Instead, the Rebels turned out to be their own worst enemy.
The first of UNLV's two big issues Saturday was inconsistency in attacking Utah up front.
As was the case in losses earlier this season to Kansas State and Southern Cal, the Rebels at times shied away from going up against Utah's lengthy front line, which included not only Foster, but 7-foot Jason Washburn and 6-foot-11 Kim Tillie, who played 16 minutes before fouling out in his first game back from arthroscopic knee surgery.
"I thought in the first half, the presence of the big guys bothered us on some drives and some tips," Kruger said. "The second half, we were a little bit better, a little more comfortable."
The Utes also compounded that problem for the Rebels with consistent rotation and switching while defending the perimeter.
"They definitely did what they were supposed to do, and we did some of what we were supposed to do," Willis said. "We didn't do a very good job of dictating the game on both ends of the floor, and that was the difference.
"We were telling each other we can't go inside the paint soft. You have to go finish like Anthony did. You have to dunk on them. We've just got to realize that every possession counts."
UNLV's other major woe Saturday, coincidentally, came as a result of what happened when the Rebels actually did go at the Utes with aggression.
As a team, UNLV shot 34 free throws, which was the most it had attempted since the first game of the season, when the Rebels hoisted 52 charities against Pittsburg State.
But the Rebels were able to connect on only 22 of those 34 attempts. Oddly enough, Willis, who entered the game as the team's top free-throw shooter (88.8 percent), had the most crucial miss of the night.
He came up short on the back end of a two-shot trip to the line with 40 seconds left which would have tied the game at 68. Instead, Utah led for the remainder of the evening, including two huge hits from Foster at the line — he notched a career-high 13 points to go with six blocks and six rebounds — and then the kiss of death from freshman Shawn Glover with five seconds to go, making it a four-point game.
It was Utah's first win over UNLV at the Mack since 2005.
"In one-possession types of games, they take on more significance," Kruger said of the free throws. "We have to bounce back and shoot those better."
Actually, the Rebels just need to bounce back in general.
The next week holds a pair of road contests that cannot be overlooked. Last year's team learned that the hard way on both trips.
UNLV on Wednesday will face Colorado State (11-6, 2-1), which has yet to lose on its home floor this season. That will be followed by a jaunt to Fort Worth, texas, Saturday for an afternoon tilt against TCU (9-9, 202), which played San Diego State to within five points on Saturday night the road.
With some of the parity which already has taken place elsewhere around the league, such as SDSU and New Mexico each already having two conference losses, Saturday's result hardly knocks UNLV to the bottom of the heap.
However, the Rebels now have to make up some ground that was given up in disappointing fashion on the heels of two inspiring victories.
"It's very important to hold serve (on your home floor)," Kruger said. "When you lose one, that knocks you back a step."