Friday, Dec. 4, 2015 | 10:22 p.m.
Toward the end of the first half tonight, UNLV’s Pat McCaw drained a 3-pointer that appeared to be so routine you started to get the feeling the Rebels couldn’t miss.
McCaw raised his hands in the air and watched the ball swish through the net. He blew on his fingers — those three fingers he waved in the air in celebration — to signal he and his teammates were on a hot shooting streak.
Yes, this UNLV basketball team is confident, and better than most anticipated.
The Rebels grabbed another resume-building victory for March by disposing of No. 15 Oregon 80-69 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, improving to 7-1 on the season and showing this might finally be the Dave Rice team that equals the lofty expectations established by his high-level recruiting.
Maybe that’s an overreaction because of the good play that ended in easily the Rebels’ best result of the season. But, maybe I’m right: the Rebels could make some noise before it’s all said and done this season.
Here are some observations from the game:
Holding on: UNLV led by as many as 20 points before going into a field-goal drought of more than 11 minutes in the second half. Part of problem was Oregon mixing in a zone defense, which UNLV can’t seem to crack. But the Rebels may also have been guilty of taking the air out of the ball with a big lead. That killer instinct is what separates good teams from great teams, and UNLV is still learning how to finish. It’s a simple strategy: keep running; keep the energy in the arena. The good news, which is a credit to their potential, is they didn’t completely fold. Remember, UNLV is a good team this year. Still not great, though.
Experience the difference: Transfers Ben Carter, Ike Nwamu and Jerome Seagears have more than a dozen years of combined college experience, giving the Rebels the veteran leadership they lacked last season. With sophomores McCaw, Jordan Cornish and Dwayne Morgan developing at different speeds, the transfers have turned this team into a contender. They ignited the first half rally and held strong when Oregon shot more than 60 percet in the second half. I knew Carter had a high basketball IQ and would rebound, but I didn’t expect him to be the Rebels’ best player out of the gate. I didn’t expect the blocked shots, either. Nwamu had 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including five 3-pointers and showed how he can take over a game at any point. He needed a few weeks to get comfortable in the offense after transferring in from Mercer and is just starting to take over. Huge 3-pointer late, right? Seagears made 6 of 7 free throws and, as I have written before, gives the Rebels a combination of athleticism and experience at the point guard position they have previously lacked.
Zimmerman does the little things: I’ve seen a lot of Stephen Zimmerman Jr. over the years while he was at Bishop Gorman, and not once did he miss so many close-to-the-basket shot attempts. While he was struggling to find his touch, he did all the little things that make him a special player. He led the Rebels with 12 rebounds, dove for loose balls, blocked shots and kept fighting. That’s why he’ll be a pro. How many 7-footers are diving for loose balls? Finally, toward the end of the game, he got a shot to fall, and it was a big one — a 3-point play to help the Rebels pull away.
A look at the stat sheet: UNLV was out-rebounded 39-36, which is a point of concern after post player Goodluck Okonoboh last week transferred out of the program. Carter and Seagears each contributed with six rebounds, and the lack of another big man didn’t appear to be a problem ... UNLV made 8 of its 16 3-pointers in the first half, finishing the game 10 of 23. Living and dying with the outside shot is never a good thing, and it would be more ideal if the Rebels had better looks closer to the rim, but, then again, they couldn’t miss early. ...UNLV made 18 of 21 from the free throw line. Guess that problem is solved, right? ...Freshman Jalen Poyser made the most of his seven minutes, scoring five points on 2-of-3 shooting. ...Cornish’s sophomore shooting slump continued, as he was held scoreless on two shots attempts and played just 11 minutes. ...The Rebels had just nine assists on 26 field goal attempts, which is a stat coach Dave Rice won’t like.
Up next: Speaking of resume building. The Rebels, already 2-0 this season against top-15 ranked teams, play at Wichita State on Wednesday with a chance to grab another one of those attractive victories come March. Wichita State, one of the nation’s best mid-major conference programs over the past few seasons, sports just a 2-4 record and has an ugly three-game losing streak. But it is always tough to play at its Intrust Bank Arena, and Wichita State will fix its problems before the season is over. This will be a good spot for the Rebels to continue their good play.