Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015 | 12:40 a.m.
Jerome Seagears was open and his feet were set, so in UNLV coach Dave Rice’s offense the senior guard’s corner 3 attempt with 12 seconds left was a good shot. And in a vacuum that’s true, but whether or not the shot had gone in wouldn’t change the fact that after crawling back largely at the free-throw line the Rebels failed to get there when they needed to most.
The result was a gut-wrenching 69-66 home loss to Fresno State that puts UNLV in an 0-1 Mountain West hole for the second straight year. The only consolation, if it can be called that, is that the Rebels really didn’t deserve to win.
“Way, way, way too many mistakes,” Rice said.
UNLV (9-5, 0-1) attempted 35 free throws but none over the final 4:47, and for nearly all of that, the visiting Bulldogs’ entire lineup played with four fouls. None fouled out because they were rarely challenged.
On their last meaningful possession, the Rebels drew up a play to get a struggling Pat McCaw to attack the rim, but once defenders swarmed, McCaw instead kicked it to the corner for Seagears, who missed his fifth 3-pointer of the game. That play wasn’t the sole reason UNLV sent a previously raucous Thomas & Mack Center crowd home stammering to itself, it was just the last in a long line of them.
“Pat was going to take it all the way to the basket and Jerome’s man helped from the corner, so we kicked it out to the corner for a wide-open 3,” said Rice, who is now 3-3 against Fresno State (10-4, 1-0). “We were trying to get Pat to the basket and they did a good job of helping.”
McCaw’s recent swoon continued with his worst game of the season: two points, five turnovers and one rebound in a season-low 18 minutes because of foul trouble. It was also a rough night for freshman Derrick Jones Jr., who played only eight minutes largely because of the decisions behind his three turnovers, and Seagears had two turnovers in the final two minutes. Plus, while his shot in the corner was open, Seagears is barely making more than 30 percent on 3s this season and wouldn't have been anyone's first choice for that crucial attempt, especially when he was already struggling so much against the Bulldogs.
UNLV’s biggest problem throughout the game was an offense that committed 21 turnovers (that turned into 33 Fresno State points) and missed two-thirds of its shots. Seagears and McCaw combined for 10 of those, and giveaways on UNLV’s first two second-half possessions from Ike Nwamu and Jones helped to quickly turn a six-point lead into a deficit.
“I really thought if we won the rebounding battle we’d have a good chance to win the game. Problem is I didn’t count on us making 21 turnovers, and probably half of those were unforced,” Rice said. “… Just careless, unnecessary turnovers.”
That rebounding battle was a huge focal point coming into the game because it pitted a Bulldog strength against a Rebel weakness, but that’s not how it played out. UNLV outrebounded Fresno State 43-31, led by freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr.’s fifth double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds). The one rebound he didn’t get felt far more important, though, as Fresno’s Torren Jones beat Zimmerman for a go-ahead tip-in off a missed free throw that was about to give UNLV possession with a one-point lead and 25 seconds left. Instead the Rebels had to call a timeout, and the coaching staff set up McCaw’s drive.
“Don’t let it haunt you, just don’t let it happen again,” junior Ben Carter said he would tell his roommate Zimmerman about not boxing out.
Carter’s defense and freshman Jalen Poyser’s sudden offensive outburst put UNLV in position to overcome their mistakes and survive a scare. Down the stretch, Carter drew a couple of charges and forced a turnover while Poyser set the Mack on fire with a go-ahead 3-pointer at 4:08 and then followed it up with another 3 and a beautiful stutter-step for UNLV’s only shot at the rim in the final minutes.
But as they battled foul trouble the entire second half, it was the Bulldogs who made game-winning plays. Preseason Player of the Year Marvelle Harris battled through a flu bug for a game-high 22 points, and Jones chipped in 18 points and eight rebounds.
Fresno State shot 58.3 percent in the second half compared with UNLV’s 27.3 percent, a dreadful number that made getting to the free-throw line even more important.
“Message all game long was try to get to the line, and we did get to the line 35 times,” Rice said.
But not when it mattered most — just as the Rebels rebounded very well, but not when it mattered most.
“It’s one league game, but a pretty devastating result, especially with a week off,” Rice said.
UNLV has to stew on this before returning to action on Jan. 6 at Colorado State, where Rice is 0-4. Whether it motivates or further frustrates a team already staring down a potential conference tournament title or bust scenario for its NCAA Tournament hopes will be determined over the next week.
In the meantime the Rebels will be left to think about what could have been if they kept attacking the rim, or perhaps their fate was sealed before Seagears ever released the ball.
“You’re not going to win many ball games if you have 21 turnovers and you shoot 33 percent from the field,” Carter said. “End of story.”