Published Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015 | 12:40 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015 | 11:48 a.m.
Was this a successful debut season for UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez? Is this going to be a successful stretch, starting with Friday's game against the Oregon Ducks, for UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice? Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and sports writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern get into that and much more on this week's episode.
Ike Nwamu waved off everyone on the court with one arm. Then he buried the dagger, and with both arms now free, he used them to wave the crowd to its feet and officially set off the Rebels’ party Friday night at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“It’s the kind of thing you dream of when you play college basketball,” Nwamu said.
UNLV’s dreams are starting to come true this season, as the Rebels are likely headed for the top 25 poll following an 80-69 victory against No. 15 Oregon. It’s the Rebels’ second victory against a top-15 team in the last week and a half — they never trailed in either win — and it was a strong performance to build off in their first true road game Wednesday against a Wichita State team that started the year in the top 10.
Nwamu would mostly defer the credit for his 19 points on nine shots to teammates giving him confidence, but with the clock ticking down under two minutes and the Rebels (7-1) one shot away from a knockout, Nwamu knew he would be the one to deliver the blow.
Facing a one-on-one against Oregon’s Dwayne Benjamin, who brought needed life to the Ducks with 19 second-half points, Nwamu motioned his teammates away from the isolated players at the top of the key. That’s where Nwamu pulled up for a long 3, his fifth in the game, that turned out to be the final points scored with 1:30 remaining.
UNLV coach Dave Rice listed off a lot of game-changing plays or players, but Nwamu’s final shot wasn’t one of them. Rice was more enamored with a defensive adjustment from Nwamu minutes earlier, plus Stephen Zimmerman Jr.’s rebounding, Pat McCaw’s defense and other contributions large and small the Rebels got from nearly the entire roster.
“Once again this season, our depth won out,” Rice said. “That’s a big deal.”
Oregon (6-1) came in dealing with some depth issues as it awaits the return of senior point guard Dylan Ennis and sophomore forward Jordan Bell from foot injuries. They took another hit at an inopportune time when freshman guard Tyler Dorsey fell awkwardly and exited the game toward the end of UNLV’s 10:17 drought without a made field goal.
That stretch helped the Ducks cut the lead from 20 to five on their first possession without Dorsey, but UNLV quickly found its response. Zimmerman hit a long jumper to end the drought, and McCaw started guarding Benjamin, forcing the lead back up to 11.
“I wasn’t making the shots that I wanted to. Down by the post, my touch wasn’t there, but my teammates told me to keep shooting,” said Zimmerman, who had his fourth double-double plus four blocks while fighting through an ankle injury over 33 minutes. “We were working it around; everybody was touching the ball, and it was just good basketball.”
Dorsey would return and Oregon would get within four, but between Zimmerman, Nwamu, McCaw and Jerome Seagears, the Rebels kept coming up with enough to stave off any real concern of a collapse. Part of that was the energy from the crowd, which somewhat hilariously will go down officially as neutral, despite the pregame red carpet and fireworks show that made the short drive down Tropicana Avenue from the Thomas & Mack Center.
“So much of the credit goes to our administration for getting that in the season-ticket package,” Rice said. "It was absolutely electric.”
The trick was that tickets technically weren’t in UNLV’s season-ticket package. The Rebels negotiated their allotment of tickets and then chose to give those to season-ticket holders who requested them.
It’s a minor difference that allowed UNLV to pack the stands with Rebel red and still get credit for a neutral win. Maybe that will mean something to a committee in a few months or maybe it won’t matter, but it’s an extra positive out of a victory that figures to look better as Oregon gets healthy and continues its season.
Five Rebels scored in double figures, the team committed only four first-half turnovers and an 18-of-21 performance at the free-throw line helped them hold Oregon at bay while their offense went through its struggles. That balance is part of the reason Rice said he’s not concerned about success going to UNLV’s head.
“The great thing about our depth is if I see someone on the floor who’s complacent, you’ll hear a buzzer and someone else will go in for him and a guy will learn his lesson,” Rice said. “We’ve got great kids in our program, and I’m really proud of them.”
The players are proud of Rice, too. On his way to the podium, Zimmerman offered Rice congratulations and shook his hand, then Ben Carter and Rice hugged. The Bishop Gorman grads played for Rice’s brother, Grant, at Bishop Gorman High, and they know how much this job and this program mean to Rice.
This one also had a little extra juice for Carter, who played his first two seasons at Oregon under coach Dana Altman and his staff. All week and after the game, Carter said it was about getting a special win for the team, not himself, but that didn’t mean he didn’t really enjoy himself out there.
Carter played his 28 minutes with panache, making some slick passes and drawing two charges to go along with his 10 points and six rebounds. When the outcome was secured, Carter walked toward mid-court waving both arms in the air and yelling at the crowd.
“Stand the (expletive) up,” Carter screamed.
They did, as did the Rebels.