Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 | 9:45 p.m.
Here are some quick observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 61-59 loss tonight against visiting Illinois:
What the game means: The defeats continue to pile up for UNLV, which scored just four points in the final six minutes and blew a 10-point halftime lead in falling to 2-3 overall on the season. There is no sugar-coating it after this one — a losing record is unacceptable and a step in the wrong direction. In the first half, UNLV looked like it was starting to figure it out. They went on an 11-0 scoring run for a double-digit halftime lead, hit a few big shots in transition and received contributions from multiple players. They were much-improved from last week’s loss to Arizona State. Then, they got outplayed in the second half, failing to score in the final 4:17. They couldn’t guard the pick-and-roll, had no rhythm offensively and were the victim of poor game management in the final minutes. Sure, part of that is a young team with players still trying to become comfortable with each other. I’m a fan of freshman point guard Kendall Smith and think he’ll be a great program player. He, and the Rebels’ other young players, will be better because of tonight’s frantic finish — simply put, they were lost in the final minute.
This player stood out: Freshman Chris Wood had been lost in previous appearances — albeit brief ones. He was limited in practice with nagging injuries, struggled to find a role in the rotation and with learning the UNLV offense. When he played two weeks ago against UC Santa Barbara, he was literally lost on the court. That was far from the case tonight. The lanky 6-foot-10 Wood showed why he was a top-50 overall recruiting prospect last season out of Findlay Prep. He entered early in the first half and sparked a scoring run with five quick points, three rebounds and a blocked shot. He was active in taking the ball to the basket and didn’t hesitate taking his shot from the perimeter. While he wound up playing just five minutes, he showed the potential to be a reliable piece off the Rebel bench. He deserves credit for putting in the extra work in practice, earning his spot in the lineup.
An improvement at the line, but still one troublesome miss: UNLV made 13 of 16 foul shots for a more-than-respectable 81 percent, which is a clear improvement in one of its many problem areas. They entered making just 50 of 99 attempts, but were a perfect 9 of 9 in the first half. Still, one of the misses came at an inopportune time. Roscoe Smith rimmed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2:33 remaining and UNLV leading by three points. Illinois made the game-tying 3-pointer on its ensuing possession. UNLV didn’t score in the final four minutes.
Credit to BDJ: The game hadn’t been over five minutes when Bryce Dejean-Jones emerged from the locker room with a ball in his hand. He missed a potential game-tying shot with seconds remaining and was clearly bothered. After the Arizona State loss, he did the same thing in returning to the court to put-up shots. You have to love his determination. He wants the ball in his hands late and is working to be ready for the next big moment. While tonight’s shot didn’t fall, at least he had the courage to take it.
On deck for the Rebels: Nothing has been easy for UNLV this season, but Saturday’s home game against Tennessee-Martin appears to be one of the more winnable games on the schedule. Tennessee-Martin is 1-7 overall, losing all but one game by double-digits. In the Skyhawks' most recent game, they lost to Lipscomb, 95-84. It’s a great spot for UNLV to gain momentum for its biggest challenge of the season, Dec. 7 at No. 4 Arizona. Arizona is the best team UNLV will play this season, serving as a measuring stick for the Rebels’ progress. They likely won’t win in Tucson, right?