Rick Scuteri / AP
Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015 | 10:50 p.m.
The Rebels wrap up a key month of their schedule this week with a home game against Arizona State and a trip to No. 13 Arizona. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern get into the return of former Rebel Savon Goodman and what to expect this week against two Pac-12 foes.
There was little doubt UNLV would bounce back from Wednesday’s ugly home loss to Arizona State. The Rebels certainly don’t win every big game, but coach Dave Rice’s teams rise to the level of competition more often than not, so the question wasn’t whether UNLV could compete but if the Rebels could win.
Turned out the answer was no for reasons old and new, but most importantly it was because Arizona was the more aggressive, better team for the majority of the game. The 13th-ranked Wildcats (11-1) had to hold off a late surge and by the end they had covered the 11.5-point spread in an 82-70 victory for their 46th consecutive win in the sold-out McKale Center.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” said Rice, whose team has lost three of the past four. “We’ve got a good basketball team and we had a week that was a challenge, and we came up short.”
The Rebels (8-4) played most the game without freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr., and junior Ben Carter fouled out with 5:38 left and UNLV down 11, yet they were able to mount one final comeback and got within four points. Shortly after that, though, sophomore Pat McCaw threw away the last sliver of hope with an errant inbounds pass, an error senior Jerome Seagears compounded with an and-one foul on Gabe York.
“That turnover really killed us, but it happens,” Carter said.
In less than three minutes, UNLV’s deficit went from 12 to four and right back up to nine. That was the Rebels’ last chance and they fell short, the same thing that happened earlier in the second half when they were able to get it down to three and then missed nine consecutive shots, all but one of them jumpers.
“I thought they were the tougher, harder-playing team for a point in the second half, but we did well to fight them off,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “Kadeem Allen deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Allen registered 15 points, five steals and numerous floor burns. He was all over the place generating energy and extra possessions while Dusan Ristic (career-high 20 points) and Ryan Anderson (17 points, 13 rebounds) led the offense.
Arizona built its lead largely through Ristic and at the free-throw line, where it went 29-of-39 compared with UNLV’s 10-of-14. Rice was so upset with fouls in the first half that he screamed at official Dave Hall until earning his second career technical foul. The other came last year in an upset victory at New Mexico.
“I’m always going to fight for my team,” said Rice, who was yelling mostly about a no-call at the rim. “They were working hard, and I wanted to have my say.”
Rice seemed like he had plenty more he wanted to say after the game about the crew of Hall, John Higgins and Verne Harris, but he mostly stepped around it.
“(Arizona) did a good job of attacking. I thought we did a good job of attacking as well,” Rice said. “It’s hard to make up when you lose by 19 points at the free-throw line, but we’ll just have to attack even harder the next game. … Obviously Arizona did a good job of contesting shots that we weren’t able to get to the line as much as we would like to.”
The same officiating crew worked last week’s game at Wichita State, in which the Shockers were whistled for six fewer fouls than UNLV. That’s what happens on the road, and the Wildcats helped create Saturday night's situation with drive after drive right at the rim before UNLV started doing more of that in its own offense.
“Not aggressive enough, and that was I believe why the free-throw difference was as much as it was,” Carter said. “We can’t complain about refs. Refs are going to be refs; they call it like they see it.”
Zimmerman took a knee to the thigh in Thursday’s practice and came off the bench because he wasn’t a full participant Friday. But Rice said he was 100 percent available and they expected him to play regular minutes until Zimmerman aggravated the leg injury while going for a rebound.
Zimmerman was booed when he entered the game by Arizona fans who had wanted him, and he had them a little worried with six points on 3-of-3 shooting and three rebounds in nine minutes. By halftime, the Rebels knew they would be without Zimmerman, and Carter and sophomore Dwayne Morgan each had three fouls, which was something Rice cited as a reason for not going to any real full-court pressure until midway through the second half.
“We’re just not as good a team when Ben Carter’s not on the floor,” Rice said. “That’s just a fact.”
UNLV has been running its full-court pressure less and less, so whether the fouls were a reason or an excuse is unclear. What’s obvious is how flustered the Wildcats were immediately against the trap, and a couple of times when they broke it easily the Rebels still got an acceptable result with a hurried shot.
“It really gets the other team on their heels, 'cause nobody likes to play with pressure,” said senior Ike Nwamu, who led UNLV with 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
McCaw had seven assists to two turnovers plus four rebounds, but at 3-of-14 shooting his offense looked out of sorts for the third time in the past four games. Not surprisingly, that lines up with UNLV’s losses, and it was only when McCaw took over the game at UC Riverside that the Rebels were able to pull away.
Between McCaw’s off night, Zimmerman’s absence, UNLV’s reluctance to use the press, another lost rebounding battle (38-26), another long offensive lull and the foul disparity, there was too much to overcome. This wasn’t ugly like Wednesday’s loss, when Arizona State fought harder than UNLV for at least the final 17 minutes.
“That was the thing that was disappointing for me on Wednesday that can never, ever happen again,” Rice said. “… The guys were on notice and I don’t think we got out-toughed or out-hustled tonight.”
They competed, just as reasonable folks expected. And just as those same people could have figured, it wasn’t enough.