Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 | 1 a.m.
The No. 1 goal for the UNLV basketball team entering the MGM Grand Showcase was to control the defensive glass. No. 14 Utah hadn’t been outrebounded all season and that area, which the Rebels have struggled with for much of the season, figured to be key Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Turns out, achieving that goal didn’t matter much because the Rebel offense set new season lows for field-goal percentage (32.7 percent), 3-point percentage (18.2) and free-throw percentage (43.5).
UNLV allowed only four offensive rebounds and won the rebounding battle, 41-37. Yet the Rebels (7-3) weren’t within nine points for the final seven and a half minutes. So full of holes was UNLV’s showing, both on offense and in the stands, that when Utah fans chanted, “This is our house” near the end of a 59-46 victory, no one could really argue.
“It didn’t feel like a road game,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “… It was pretty powerful for our players to be on another court and feel that kind of support.”
The basketball team made it a 2-0 day for the Utes fans who swarmed Las Vegas this weekend. The football team obliterated Colorado State 45-10 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in the afternoon, giving fans plenty of time to make their way to the Strip for what turned out to be a really ugly first half.
At the break, Utah (8-2) led by one thanks to a steal and buzzer-beating layup that brought the combined shooting percentage to just 32 percent. UNLV didn’t actually mind that kind of style. The trouble was Utah got better — 50 percent shooting in the second half — while the Rebels got worse.
The Utes played with more patience instead of trying to attack UNLV’s shot blockers and the results changed the game. With 12:53 remaining the Rebels trailed by one. Four and a half minutes later the margin was 10.
“It’s very frustrating to meet that (rebounding) goal and then not be more efficient on the offensive end,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The Rebels don’t have any time to dwell on this because No. 3 Arizona comes to the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday. If they wanted to dwell, though, there would be plenty to choose from.
They could look at sophomore Christian Wood, who had a good game if you look at just the box score — eight points, 13 rebounds, two blocks, two steals — and not his many miscues. His three turnovers didn’t include an obvious double-dribble that went uncalled or the handful of lazy passes that weren’t quite picked off, and there’s no room in the box score for running back on defense multiple times while the coaching staff screamed for him to get into position.
That last part happened multiple times and not just to Wood. During one of their last desperate attempts to pull back in the game, four Rebels jogged back towards the defensive end, leaving senior point guard Cody Doolin as the only player in the position he had clearly been instructed to assume.
However, those were all minor issues compared to the offensive execution. Some of the shots fell halfway down the cylinder before popping out, but not nearly enough to justify the woeful shooting percentages.
“They really took us out of what we wanted to do,” said Doolin, who had probably his worst game at UNLV.
Utah denied passing lane to the wings and often the Rebels either didn’t beat their defender off the dribble or failed to finish the play at the rim. Freshman Rashad Vaughn had a couple of nice drives and finishes but he needed 16 shots for his 16 points. No other Rebel scored in double figures.
Freshman Goodluck Okonoboh was a bright spot with seven points, six blocks and three rebounds, but he was the Rebels’ main culprit at the free-throw line with six misses. Everyone knew Okonoboh would struggle shooting, though, so if it were just him it would be understandable. Obviously that wasn’t the case.
“We absolutely didn’t convert enough,” Rice said.
Three Pac-12 opponents have resulted in three double-digit defeats. A fourth Pac-12 team comes in Tuesday and the Rebels figure to be a double-digit underdog on their home court for the first time in at least a decade.
Perhaps the worst part of this one for the Rebels, their first of three games against top-15 teams in the next 16 days, is that they did what they had set out to do, and it mattered not one bit.