Travis Heying / The Wichita Eagle via AP
Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015 | 10:45 p.m.
It happened too many times to pinpoint one backbreaker, but they all felt that way for UNLV coach Dave Rice considering it’s the thing he values and prioritizes above perhaps anything else. It is defensive rebounding, and more than any other thing it was the Rebels’ undoing in a 56-50 loss at Wichita State on Wednesday night.
UNLV’s offense no-showed for much of the game, scoring only eight points in the first 13 1/2 minutes and 26 in the first 26 1/2, and the Rebels tied their season high with 19 turnovers. Yet there they were, trailing by only three with five minutes remaining.
Then the Shockers (4-4) grabbed one of their 14 offensive rebounds and scored two of their 10 second-chance points, nudging the lead ahead the way they were able to all night. Neither team shot the ball well, and neither side sustained much of a flow, but almost every time the Rebels saw a glimmer of hope it was the Shockers going over and slamming shut the door for their 35th straight home victory.
“I don’t want to say they wanted it more than us, because we obviously wanted it really bad, but that might have been it,” UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. said.
This was the first true road game of the season for UNLV and first of the career for Zimmerman and fellow freshmen Jalen Poyser and Derrick Jones Jr., who together played better than any other UNLV class. Zimmerman, who had 11 points and six rebounds, said the Rebels were buzzing right along with the 10,506 who filled up Charles Koch Arena.
“It was honestly fun,” he said. “We were feeding off the energy in warmups.”
The Rebels’ pregame dunk line made more than a few Wichita State fans sit up straight or glance at each other. When the game started, though, that energy disappeared as UNLV (7-2) struggled to get any semblance of an offense going.
Meanwhile, Wichita State point guard Fred Van Vleet showed little early signs of rust from his four-game absence for a hamstring injury. Van Vleet buried a deep 3 and carved through the lane for a litany of beautiful finishes over outstretched arms at the rim.
As Rice did against Indiana and Oregon, he didn’t want to spring many backcourt traps out of UNLV’s full-court press because of Van Vleet’s ball-handling. He said the plan was to trap only on free throws and deadballs while pressuring after made baskets, but as the half-court offense continued to struggle he didn’t feel like they were getting enough opportunities, so they started springing more traps late in the first half and started to see some results.
“It’s kind of the chicken and the egg,” Rice said. “You need to score to set your press to force tempo, but if you can’t score it’s hard to set your press.”
There were plenty more opportunities for the Rebels to turn up the pressure, but against an elite guard like Van Vleet, Rice was hesitant to use it too much until he felt like UNLV was running out of options.
“As the second half got into it, we felt like we needed to get the energy going a little bit more so we trapped a little bit more,” Rice said.
Van Vleet, who finished with 17 points but only three in the second half, was wearing down near the end of his 33 minutes and despite all of UNLV’s struggles the game was there for the taking. Guards Jerome Seagears and Pat McCaw combined to hit 6-of-18 with eight turnovers, but they each hit key 3-pointers in the final six minutes, and here’s what happened after each:
McCaw, who was responsible for UNLV’s only fast-break bucket of the game, cut the deficit to three with 5:03 remaining, and out of a timeout the Rebels made a stop. What they didn’t do was box out Shaquille Morris, whose offensive rebound set up a Wichita State layup.
The Rebels (7-1) have two top-15 victories in the bag, and now they're heading to their first true road game at Wichita State. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern preview that game while looking at what has gotten UNLV to the fringe of the top 25 rankings.
“That’s a game-changer right there,” McCaw said.
In the final 30 seconds, Seagears connected on a desperation trey that cut it to two. The ensuing inbounds pass will be debated, but UNLV’s Ike Nwamu was called for a foul on the Shockers’ Conner Frankamp, who hit two free throws before Nwamu tried to answer with a drive and instead committed what was essentially a game-ending turnover.
The referees were a hot topic during the game — probably doubly so if relying on UNLV’s radio call — and it’s true they often looked like they were calling the game from Bristol, Conn., alongside the ESPN announcers. But those issues affected both sides, and neither team did themselves any favors with a combined 7-of-35 effort beyond the arc and 19-of-35 at the free-throw line.
Ultimately, UNLV was close at the end when all signs pointed to a blowout, and the Rebels competed when very little went right. Losing is what opponents are supposed to do at Koch Arena, where no nonconference opponent has walked out victorious since 2009.
UNLV probably earned some respect fighting until the end, but no matter the complaints about refs, the Rebels didn’t earn a win. Lucky for them this is one of many opportunities in nonconference to prove themselves, including a couple of the victories already pocketed, and they’ll get another chance on the road Saturday at UC Riverside.
“I'm proud of our resilience tonight because there were two or three different times the game was close to getting away and we just kept fighting back,” Rice said. “I think it speaks volumes about our team.”