Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013 | 6:43 p.m.
So many things about Saturday’s game at No. 2 Arizona felt new and different to the Rebels. It was their first road game of the season — the first in a couple of careers — and their opponent was the best and most hyped team they will probably play all season. Yet one thing was so painfully familiar for UNLV as it watched a potential season-defining road upset slip away into a 63-58 defeat.
“At the end of the day,” said junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, “we’re going to have to close out games.”
The Rebels (3-4) had their chances, more than most people in the sold-out McKale Center or Las Vegas sports books thought they would.
“I heard the spread was us losing by like 20 points,” said junior forward Khem Birch.
Not quite, but plus-16 made the Rebels a sizable underdog against a Wildcats (9-0) team that will be ranked No. 1 Monday morning. And if not for a few plays the Rebels either botched or failed to make they could have walked out victorious.
There were myriad factors to the loss, from freshman guard Kendall Smith’s departure with cramps to the overall awful second-half shooting, but Birch felt one play best encapsulated the day. With 5:30 remaining and UNLV ahead by one, junior Jelan Kendrick made a lazy pass in the backcourt that Arizona’s T.J. McConnell easily picked off and converted into a layup.
It was Kendrick’s fifth turnover of the game, his third in the backcourt and served as a prime example of the mistakes near the last five minutes that have factored into three of UNLV’s four losses.
“That one play I feel like turned the whole game around,” Birch said.
The Rebels would regain the lead on Birch’s putback of a Dejean-Jones miss but that, with 3:29 remaining, was their final basket of the game. Birch added one free throw and the Rebels finished the second half with only 16 points on 28 percent shooting, including 0-for-8 on 3-point attempts.
Arizona wasn’t much better. The Wildcats matched the Rebels with an 0-for-8 effort from deep and shot 32.4 percent in the second half because they missed a plethora of shots at the rim. Still, the Wildcats were far more successful down there — they led points in the paint 44-22 — and converted when they needed to down the stretch.
McConnell was a huge reason for that. Starting with that steal and score, he scored five of Arizona’s final nine points and assisted the other two baskets. Overall he finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists to one turnover.
“His six field goals all came at crucial times for us,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
McConnell was the guy UNLV coach Dave Rice had pointed to on Thursday as the key to Arizona’s attack, and McConnell delivered on that in part because of a favorable matchup.
Playing well in his first career road game, Kendall Smith left because of leg cramps with 9:57 remaining. Team trainer Dave Tomchek and strength coach Jason Kabo were rubbing ice packs on both of his legs above the knee but couldn’t get the cringing point guard back into the game, forcing him to watch as UNLV scored only five points the rest of the way. And defensively backup point guards Deville Smith and Daquan Cook failed to corral McConnell.
“It hurt us a lot,” Birch said of Kendall Smith’s exit. “We needed a leader.”
The Rebels also needed more rebounds. UNLV’s defense held freshman sensation Aaron Gordon to 2-of-10 shooting and made Arizona look very pedestrian at times, but the Wildcats won the rebounding battle 41-29. That was a big reason they took 17 more shots in the game.
“When good teams start throwing their whole starting five boxing me and Khem out we need some help,” said junior Roscoe Smith.
Roscoe Smith came in leading the nation at 16.2 rebounds per game and finished with a season-low six. Still, he and Birch combined for a solid 16 total rebounds but every Wildcat who played at least seven minutes grabbed more rebounds than any other Rebel.
“We’re expecting (Roscoe and Khem) to get it and not really helping them,” said Dejean-Jones, who had a game-high 16 points and also two rebounds. “I’m going to take it upon myself to help those guys rebound because I know they need it.”
They were close, again, and the Rebels came up short, again. There can be more of a silver lining to this one because of the opponent and the location, but that was little consolation in the visitors’ locker room.
“There are no moral victories in our program so it’s not about that,” Rice said.
What is it about then? Dejean-Jones already knows. It’s about learning to make plays that win games instead of the ones that lose them.