Courtesy: Laramie Boomerang
Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014 | 10 p.m.
Christian Wood led Wyoming 19-14 less than nine minutes into the game, the result of perhaps the best start to a game that anyone in the Arena-Auditorium tonight has or will ever see. The UNLV sophomore hit every shot in sight, going 6-for-6 from the field and 4-of-4 at the free-throw line.
“I actually thought I was going to be cold (to start), especially with this weather,” Wood said.
That beginning was far too good to last until the end, and once Wood slipped from otherworldly to simply great the Cowboys had their chance.
If the Rebels play with as much energy and effort as they did tonight they’re going to like their results in the Mountain West, but for one night against an experienced team with its own dominant big man, it wasn’t enough. A bad stretch to start the second half swung the momentum and UNLV came up a little short down the stretch of a 76-71 loss that starts the Rebels at 0-1 in conference play.
“We played well enough to win tonight, just one or two more plays,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, whose team will finish this difficult 16-day stretch on Sunday at No. 13 Kansas.
Wyoming adjusted to Wood’s blistering start, though he was still able to pile up a career-high 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting plus seven rebounds with six turnovers. Cowboys senior Larry Nance was a big part of the defensive improvement and he matched Wood for every point at the other end, scoring 29 on 11-of-17 shooting.
“He killed us,” Wood said of Nance.
Nance is so patient in the post, reading and reacting to the defenders better than anyone in the league. He can also be a brute to get into position or explode for a drive from the 3-point line, as he did for one of several highlight-reel plays at the rim for the Cowboys.
“He’s such a physical player,” Rice said. “He does a great job of dislodging the defensive player and making space for himself.”
The Rebels rarely if ever doubled Nance in the post, instead going with their 1-2-2 zone when they weren’t guarding him one-on-one with Wood or freshmen Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan. Rice said he was more concerned with defending the 3-point line well, which is how UNLV has played most teams with legitimate inside-out threats this season.
That part went well — Wyoming shot 5-of-16 beyond the arc, including one or two makes right at the end of the shot clock — but one of those shots was as close to a dagger as this game had. With 1:46 left, Nance registered his lone assist on a kick out to Josh Adams, who hit a corner 3 for a five-point lead.
UNLV hung in from that point on but Wyoming did the rest of its damage at the free-throw line and on a Charles Hankerson Jr. slipped screen, one of many defensive miscues throughout the game. The Rebels started the game poorly on defense, getting lost on pick-and-rolls and giving up open jumpers or dunks.
“It took us way too long into the game to adjust to how we’re supposed to guard them,” Rice said. “… Those were defensive execution errors from a group that hasn’t guarded Wyoming before.”
Those defensive lapses, the 13 turnovers that Wyoming turned into 23 points and a 7-of-12 showing at the free-throw line, where the Cowboys went 15-of-19, were the key factors in UNLV’s defeat. That can feel disappointing, but it’s mostly because so much went right that the Rebels felt they were going to be the first road team to win in this building all season.
Freshman Rashad Vaughn scored 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting, Pat McCaw scored nine in the second half plus three steals and Jelan Kendrick and Jordan Cornish each hit their lone 3-pointers at key times that kept UNLV in the game.
“We answered every single run,” Rice said.
The result is disappointing, but a day that started with their bus frozen and unable to operate ended with a lot of positives as the Rebels walked out into that frigid air and onto the same, running, bus. Every player except maybe Morgan contributed at least a key play or two, and Wood upped his three-game average to 25 points per game on 65.9 shooting.
UNLV shouldn’t have to worry about a letdown with the Jayhawks on tap, and few Mountain West teams are likely to leave the Double A with a win. A victory would have made it a perfect trip, but another dominant performance from the guy Rice said is emerging from a “talented freshman to an efficient sophomore” is one of many reasons the Rebels feel good about what they accomplished, even if they don’t like the result.
“(Wood) has bought in to what we’re doing, he understands what we’re doing and he’s playing as well as anyone in our league right now,” Rice said.