Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014 | 11:59 p.m.
UNLV’s game-defining moment contained no points scored, no rebounds and no steals. In fact, it started with a turnover and ended with a foul by the Rebel who logged the fewest minutes.
What Jordan Cornish did after the whistle on Stanley Johnson's dunk attempt, though, was what mattered. The freshman stuck out his chest, talked some smack and let the undefeated Arizona Wildcats know early in the first half that they couldn’t leave without a fight. The resulting double technical — Cornish got Johnson to respond — only accounted for two points from Johnson’s free throws for the regular foul, but it said everything about the way UNLV intended to play against the third-ranked team in the country.
“That got us going,” said Rashad Vaughn, who basically recruited Cornish to the Rebels.
Arizona (12-1) did everything it could to pull away from the Rebels in front of a raucous Thomas & Mack Center crowd, but UNLV had an answer at every turn. By the end, those fans were storming the court after a 71-67 victory, the Rebels’ biggest win since defeating No. 1 North Carolina at the Orleans Arena three years ago.
“There’s no doubt that against the No. 3 team in the country tonight our guys grew up a whole bunch,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I think it speaks volumes about the direction we’re going, the progress we’re making and when you’ve got new players that come into a program you need this type of reward.”
Entering the game UNLV had been outrebounded by 14 for the season. Tonight they crashed the glass and won that battle by an astounding margin, 46-33, including 14-7 on the offensive glass.
Coming out of halftime facing a five-point deficit, Rebels sophomore Christian Wood dominated in a way not seen since the second half against Temple. He was good in the first half, but after the break he scored eight in the first 3:20 and went on to lead the team with his seventh double-double of the season (24 points, 10 rebounds).
“Everybody was telling me to dominate, telling me not to settle,” Wood said.
According to Wood, Rice told him that former Findlay Prep teammate Brandon Ashley couldn’t guard Wood, and whether it was Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or big man Kaleb Tarczewski, that was true. None of them were up to the task once Wood decided to take the ball off the bounce, usually just one or two dribbles toward the basket, and finish near the rim.
Don’t forget about that technical, though. The Rebels have battled back in several home games this year, but usually only when they’re pushed to the brink do they show the fire that tonight was present from the start.
Vaughn said he and Goodluck Okonoboh, who’s probably the team’s biggest trash talker, talked about changing their demeanor after watching some film from recent games.
“We were thinking, ‘We don’t really look like we have fun out there, we’re always serious,’ ” said Vaughn, who had 21 points, five rebounds and three steals. “We made it a priority today as a team to bring that attitude we’ve always been talking about, that Rebel attitude.”
It felt perfect, then, that for the first time since it was released more than a year ago the in-game music in the second half included Drake’s “Tuscon Leather,” including the lines, “Sittin Gucci Row like they say up at UNLV, young Rebel, young money nothin’ you could tell me.” Maybe it’s silly to put import on a song, but those lyrics are plastered all over the Rebels’ social media.
When Vaughn goes to get extra shots at the Mendenhall Center the song is always in the playlist and the same goes for the rest of the roster. It represents a swagger the Rebels display off the court but one that has rarely translated to their games.
Tonight it was everywhere. Okonoboh was in the Wildcats’ faces all night, and down the stretch offensively if it wasn’t Wood it was Vaughn or Pat McCaw, who might have cracked the first smile of his UNLV during the postgame chaos on Jerry Tarkanian Court.
“I was praying they would storm the court,” Vaughn said.
After leading UNLV to a victory against Portland, senior Cody Doolin has had a rough couple of games. Against Arizona he was scoreless for the first time this season, committed five turnovers and was a defensive liability.
Enter McCaw, who got 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting plus seven rebounds and a couple of assists. His numbers weren’t amazing but his management of the pick-and-roll steadied UNLV’s offense and he hit the game-sealing free throws with 0.7 seconds left.
“When my number is called I just feel like I can execute,” McCaw said.
If Johnson hadn’t been so out of control with seven turnovers, or if the refs saw Jelan Kendrick brush the net while Ashley’s 3-point attempt in the final 10 seconds was in the cylinder, maybe this wouldn’t have ended in a UNLV win. Even in defeat, though, it would have been the Rebels’ marquee performance of the season and a clear step in the right direction.
That they were able to close it out to secure the Mountain West’s best victory of the year and give the home fans an early Christmas present, though, could mean that the young Rebels are ready to really turn up the volume.
“When we’re focused like this, I don’t think anybody can beat us,” Vaughn said. “If we play like that every game, the sky’s the limit.”