Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 | 9:30 p.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 62, UTEP 60
- After a year off, Birch excited to make his UNLV debut against UTEP
- Addition of Birch this week adds instant intrigue to the Rebels
- Rebels satisfied with lopsided victory against La Verne
- Freshman guard will make UNLV debut Thursday night against La Verne
- UNLV-TV students will help broadcast La Verne game on VegasTV
- Moser expected to return from elbow injury in about a month
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
EL PASO, Texas — The team UNLV wants to be would take a 15-point lead and increase it to 20, or at least maintain it at about a dozen. On Monday night in the Don Haskins Center, the current version of the Rebels saw that lead dwindle to two, a margin so precarious they had to hold their breath while UTEP’s Konner Tucker lofted a potential game-winning 3-point attempt in the final seconds.
As they always seem to do in these situations, those seconds felt like a lifetime to the Rebels, who exhaled as the shot missed and they survived with a 62-60 victory.
There’s little time to digest this one before No. 21 UNLV (9-1) gets on the court again Wednesday night at home against Northern Iowa (6-4). However, the gap between the team coach Dave Rice wants to see and the one he saw here must get smaller if UNLV is going to have a legit chance to win its next road game, on Dec. 29 at No. 23 North Carolina.
“We’ve got to learn, on both ends of the floor, to play with a lead,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Typically this season we’ve gotten a lead and lost our focus on the offensive end. … Tonight, that was much more our defensive focus than other games. Proud of the win, but we need to get better.”
The list of things to work on includes finding a rotation in go-to situations, getting comfortable playing defense for long stretches and it also wouldn’t hurt to make some more free throws.
Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was the Rebels’ biggest second-half catalyst and scored a team-high 12 points, missed a pair of free throws with 15.2 seconds left. The team combined to hit just 10-for-18 at the free-throw line.
Dejean-Jones made up for it a bit at the other end by knocking the ball out of bounds with four seconds left and grabbing the rebound off Tucker’s miss as the buzzer sounded. However, just like UNLV could have made it easier on itself by maintaining that double-digit lead, Dejean-Jones could have essentially put the game away at the free-throw line.
“That would have iced the game, but we came together at the end and got a stop,” Dejean-Jones said.
It figured that UTEP (3-5) would try to slow the game down. Not only did UNLV have a distinct athletic advantage, especially in the open court, but also it’s the same strategy Miners coach Tim Floyd used in an 11-point loss at the Mack last year.
The Rebels’ offense, free throws not withstanding, was basically consistent throughout the game. They shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and finished making 44.9 percent of their overall shots and 47.1 percent — 8-for-17 — behind the three-point line.
The defense didn’t handle the pace nearly as well. As the game wore on UTEP got better and better, even if some of it came on shots the Miners had no business making. Tucker, who was playing his first career UTEP game following a transfer and a broken hand, had a couple of those. They were off-balanced 3s with a hand in his face, and they first pulled UTEP within single digits then later cut the deficit to six.
Miners center John Bohannon had another one. Near the end of the shot clock the junior found himself wide open at the top of the key and drained a 3-pointer, the first make in his eight career attempts.
Sure, that’s a shot the Rebels are OK with giving up, but they would still rather force him to shoot it with a hand in his face.
“We lost concentration on the defensive end,” Rice said. “We need to continue to guard for entire possessions. Obviously they threw a couple of shots in but that’s what competitive teams do.”
The game, which was never pretty in the first place, got particularly ugly in the second half, Dejean-Jones said. And he would know because he had a hand in it.
With about 10 minutes remaining and UNLV up by 10, Dejean-Jones was whistled for a dead ball technical foul. The immediate result was a four-point possession as C.J. Cooper missed the first free throw and then hit the second before Tucker hit one of his off-kilter 3s as the shot clock was about to expire.
The result for the rest of the game, players said, was that the refs called the game more tightly. UTEP took advantage of this, hitting 8-of-9 at the free-throw line down the stretch starting with Cooper’s make.
“That altercation kind of changed everything around,” Marshall said. “… They stepped up and made their free throws where we went to the other end and didn’t convert ours."
The game stopped and started quite a bit, and throughout that Rice attempted to find the right group of five guys without much luck. Part of the rotation concerns are kind of out of his hands — see: Mike Moser's injury and the eligibility of Khem Birch, who made his debut with four points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.
“It’s a difficult thing to find the right combinations just with the way we’ve added and subtracted guys,” Rice said.
However, finding the right group who can build on a lead rather than watch it whither away is one of the biggest problems the coaching staff must solve going forward.
That’s one of many questions the Rebels face on a quick turnaround. Above all else, they’re happy to learn these things about themselves in a victory, no matter how narrow, rather than a loss.