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UNLV Basketball:

Rebels get forked at Arizona State, limp away with 22-point loss

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Ross D. Franklin / AP

UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn grimaces as he grabs his lower back due to injury during the second half against Arizona State on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated UNLV 77-55.

UNLV vs. Arizona State

Arizona State's Jonathan Gilling, right, gains control of the ball after battling UNLV's Cody Doolin, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated UNLV 77-55. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Launch slideshow »

How does a team leading by 15 go on to lose by 22? Very quickly, it turns out.

UNLV led Arizona State 21-6 less than seven minutes into the game, nearly every shot dropping and everything rolling the Rebels’ way. Then one moment at a time it all started to unravel until you couldn’t be sure this was the same game.

A tie game at halftime turned into a rout as the Sun Devils (5-2) grabbed rebounds and let the Rebels (4-2) shoot themselves to a 24.2 percent field-goal percentage in the second half of a 77-55 loss at Wells Fargo Arena.

“We came out flat out of the locker room, we didn’t execute our plays, we didn’t box out, so that’s what happened,” said freshman Jordan Cornish, who tied for the team lead with 10 points.

Adding injury to insult, UNLV’s leading scorer Rashad Vaughn went down with a noncontact back injury after making a shot and had to be helped to the locker room with about nine minutes remaining. Senior Jelan Kendrick was also limited by a lower back injury he suffered against Albany, and after the game Rice said sophomore guard Kendall Smith, who didn’t make the trip, has asked for his release and will transfer, so the Rebels’ bench was and will continue to be short.

Cornish said he thought it was back spasms for Vaughn, and if that’s the case there’s a chance Vaughn returns Friday night for UNLV’s game against St. Katherine at Orleans Arena.

“He’s a tough kid and I’m sure he’ll do whatever he can to get back out there,” said senior guard Cody Doolin. “We need him.”

There’s a lot this team needs right now, starting with an ability to follow a scouting report. Whether it’s youth, which the Rebels brought up a lot while also saying they don’t want to use that excuse, or the coaches not being able to properly convey their message, what’s clear is it’s not getting through.

Rice talked about how important it would be to defend Jonathan Gilling, the Sun Devils’ best stretch big, yet he was open often. So was the rest of the team. When it wasn’t 3-pointers (ASU hit 11-of-22) it was practically a layup line to the basket in transition.

Throw in 16 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds — ASU won the overall rebounding battle 46-32 — and the Rebels weren’t giving themselves any chances to cut into the deficit.

“Communication every day, that’s what we talk about but today we didn’t come out and do it,” Cornish said. “We’ve got to communicate better as a whole, from the locker room to getting on the floor. Coach told us that we have shooters and we just didn’t find them.”

Sophomore Christian Wood shot 2-of-10 while freshmen Pat McCaw and Dwayne Morgan went a combined 5-of-20. Everybody was on fire at the start, but when ASU started to make its run, UNLV’s shot selection went into the dumpster.

“We got a little bit too inpatient and tried to hit too many home runs,” Rice said.

And so far it’s clear that when this team isn’t making shots the defense is out the window, too. Playing good defense throughout shooting slumps is something Rice (and pretty much every other coach) has emphasized for years, but it was clearly absent tonight.

The worst news, assuming Vaughn is OK, might be that this Sun Devils team really isn’t that good. When they’re open they can make shots and coach Herb Sendek’s team certainly isn’t bad, but ASU was coming off a home struggle against Colgate and might finish middle of the pack in the Pac-12.

This is now two losses of at least 20 points against Pac-12 teams, not including the secret scrimmage against UCLA, and both tonight and against Stanford the Rebels crumbled under pressure. The moment was too big, the instructions too difficult to understand or simply not followed, and the end result was a laugher for a small home crowd (5,822) that was prepared to sit on its hands if the Rebels continued their start.

These home fans ended up having a very nice Wednesday night, and while ASU deserves some credit it had much more to do with the team flying back to Las Vegas in search of answers. The Rebels need to look harder for those than they did for open shooters.

“We’re going to be a good basketball team,” Rice said, “we just weren’t very good in the second half.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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