Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015 | 11:20 p.m.
No answer satisfies the anger after a double-digit lead turns into a double-digit loss. Better to yield the floor to the motorists who got a look at UNLV’s crash on the side of Jerry Tarkanian Court at the Thomas & Mack Center as they were speeding past en route to a 66-56 victory.
“Perseverance, resilience, we did whatever it took to win,” said Arizona State’s Gerry Blakes.
Added leading scorer Tra Holder: “We just really wanted to win. We were relentless on the defensive end. I knew that they were going to let us back in the game.”
The Rebels did exactly that, blowing most of a 14-point second-half lead with almost six scoreless minutes and squandering the rest over the final eight minutes, when the short-handed road underdog was clearly the one that wanted it more. Holder and Blakes, listed at 6-foot-1 and 6-4, respectively, outrebounded UNLV’s five guards 20-9 despite rebounding being the focal point of the Rebels’ preparations.
“I think rebounding is effort,” said UNLV junior Ben Carter, who had three points and four rebounds in 15 minutes. “I think it’s toughness and effort. Guys on the team have to look in the mirror, dig deep and find it.”
UNLV coach Dave Rice would probably agree with most of that, though they would disagree on exactly what “it” is that the Rebels need to find.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily effort, but I think it is a grit thing, there’s no doubt about it,” Rice said.
Effort, grit, determination, toughness; whatever the hell you want to call it, UNLV didn’t have it. Even when the score was going their way, the lead was more about offense, where UNLV shot 58.3 percent in the first half compared to Arizona State’s 29.4.
First-year Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley lit into his team at halftime — “It was a wake-up call, and we woke up,” Blakes said — but he also figured out some adjustments. ASU had played zone defense on only 3 percent of its possessions coming into the game, but Hurley knew that could slow down the game.
“We mixed it up a little bit,” he said. “We threw the zone in, and I thought the zone was effective because they missed some perimeter shots.”
UNLV was 5-of-10 beyond the arc in the first half and 2-of-11 the rest of the way. That mirrored the Rebels’ overall awful second-half shooting, which came in at 5-of-26.
Yet as bad as that looks, many of the shots were decent looks close to the basket. Neither side really felt like UNLV’s offense, or complete lack thereof for far too long, was the difference.
“We weren’t getting stops on the defensive end,” Carter said. “That was the reason why we gave up this game. It happened at the defensive end.”
Holder, who scored 13 of his game-high 19 in the second half, concurred after he conquered the paint.
“I was actually surprised how easy I was getting to the basket,” Holder said.
Two years ago at the Mack it was Jahii Carson driving at will. Last year at ASU, Eric Jacobsen got hot and the Sun Devils turned a double-digit first-half deficit into a 22-point win. One thing all three of UNLV and Arizona State’s recent meetings have in common is they were Sun Devils victories, and similar to last year’s rout, this one has the Rebels questioning some of their core values.
Defensive rebounding was ugly against smaller teams in recent games, and heading into this one Rice said it would be unacceptable to let ASU continue that trend. When it was announced that former Rebel Savon Goodman, who is ASU’s leading rebounder and scorer, would miss the game for “personal reasons” it became even more obvious that UNLV needed to control that part of the game. Yet it never happened.
“Savon is not here right, but I decided to go to the glass and be relentless,” Blakes said.
Basically, ASU’s guards did exactly what Rice needed from his own backcourt.
“We’ve just got to get in there and get the ball,” Rice said. “It’s got to be the most important thing we do. … The team that goes and gets the most 50/50 balls typically is the team that wins. We have to be that team if we’re going to get ourselves to be a championship-level team.”
Rice had said he would bench guards for not rebounding, and while some of that happened he also ended up being limited in rotation options because of foul trouble. The officiating crew of Randy McCall, Dick Cartmell and Kipp Kissinger might have set a record with offensive fouls called at the Thomas & Mack Center, which contributed to UNLV’s 16 turnovers.
One notable benching did occur in the game’s final three minutes after Jerome Seagears squandered one of the Rebels’ final possessions with a pull-up, double-clutch 3-point attempt. It’s the type of play Rice has talked about removing from the senior point guard’s repertoire, because he never passed and attempted a semi-contested shot less than 10 seconds into the shot clock.
“It’s a four-point game and we’ve got to come down and get a good shot right there,” Rice said. “It’s important to do the things all game long that helped us get the lead.”
Rice put in freshman guard Jalen Poyser, but the Rebels never got closer than four. Their fate was already sealed on the glass, where again one of the tallest and longest teams in the country was outworked when it mattered most.
“That’s where we start, right there,” Carter said. “That’s the problem that we consistently keep seeing and that’s where we need to make the changes.”