Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015 | 9:28 p.m.
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.
Pat McCaw is a defense-first team player. Pat McCaw is cold-blooded, and 10 games into his sophomore season he’s learning more and more how to take over a game.
Both of these things are true, though McCaw only agrees with the first. His teammates back up the second and UNLV needed the complete McCaw to preserve its first true road victory of the season Saturday at UC Riverside in front of a pro-UNLV crowd of 1,772 at SRC Arena.
The Highlanders (5-4) went on a 17-2 second-half run that erased most of UNLV’s 18-point lead. That’s when McCaw flipped the switch, charging forward into a fall-away, banked-in jumper for two of his seven consecutive points that charged up the Rebels (8-2) and helped them get back on a bus to Las Vegas with a 73-62 victory.
“He was phenomenal this game, just like he has been all season,” said Derrick Jones Jr., who two weeks ago nodded adamantly while McCaw sat next to him denying that there’s a purpose behind his dominant stretches.
Everything for McCaw starts on defense, where Saturday he set a career high with seven steals and flirted with a triple-double (17 points on 6-of-11 shooting and eight rebounds in 33 minutes). And it’s not that McCaw becomes selfish — entering the game, 87.5 percent of his made 3-pointers were assisted — so much as he makes sure the game and the shots are in his hands.
The difference is that they’re usually good looks, often within the offense, and it’s just that McCaw asserts himself to get a lot of those opportunities in a row. That those stretches often come when UNLV most needs a spark is no coincidence, and coming off his worst game of the season this was another example of the leap McCaw has made from role player to team leader.
“It’s hard to have him off the floor; he just makes so many plays,” Rice said. “He always makes the timely play, whether it’s a defensive stop, a big 3 or an extra pass. I thought he was fantastic.”
UNLV didn’t look like it would need any kind of surge from McCaw early in the second half, when its wire-to-wire lead ballooned to 18. Then came the Highlanders' run over a nearly nine-minute stretch that Rice said made his team look tired.
“I think that shows we’re a work in progress,” Rice said. “… We definitely hit a stretch there where we did not play with as much intensity or sense of urgency. Maybe that’s human nature, but we’ve got to get better.”
UNLV forced 13 first-half turnovers, but only three came during Riverside’s big run. To McCaw, the problem was simple.
“We weren’t playing defense,” McCaw said. “… That’s just what I focus on. Defense translates to offense.”
A Dwayne Morgan block set up McCaw’s first bucket to end Riverside’s run, then he took it into his own hands with the running bank shot and a steal that set up a quick 3 assisted by freshman Jalen Poyser.
Another long offensive drought is certainly concerning and the Rebels were outrebounded 51-37, but they also forced 22 turnovers while committing only 11 and held the Highlanders to 34.4 percent shooting.
“I tell the guys all the time, we’re a defensive team,” said junior Ben Carter, who had 15 points, five rebounds and another drawn charge. “We need to make our staple as a defensive team.”
Before McCaw’s finish — something the Rebels will likely need in a big week featuring Arizona State at home and a trip to No. 13 Arizona — it was Jones taking flight for another breakout game highlighted by three first-half dunks. Each one brought a bigger cheer than the last, but Jones said impressing the crowd or topping himself is never the goal.
“If the opportunity presents itself then I’m not going to just lay the ball up. I’m going to use my athleticism and take off and do what I do,” said Jones, who had 12 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes. “I’m not trying to impress anyone. Dunking is just something I do. It’s not who I am, it’s just something I do. I do a lot more than dunks.”
Similarly, taking over games is just something McCaw does. He leads the team in points, assists, steals and minutes, and when it’s needed McCaw and his teammates make sure that his production comes in bunches to stomp out an opponent’s hope.