AP / Erin Hull
Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015 | 7 p.m.
The lead, as big as it was, disappeared so quickly that it was easy to see this game through only the second-half lens. In that view, UNLV and Colorado State were two mostly even teams that rode hot-shooting guards to the end.
In that view, it felt appropriate for the game to come down to a final shot, in this case Jordan Cornish’s open 3-point attempt at the buzzer that missed in UNLV’s 83-82 loss this afternoon at Colorado State.
Another conference game that came down to the end, another conference game lost at the end. That’s just the second half, though.
Viewed through all 40 minutes, the Rebels checked off nearly every box on the list of reasons they give fans hope and why they prevent themselves from winning.
“That game had about everything except for me getting a technical,” said Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy. “It had the smorgasbord variety of everything.”
Over the first 12 minutes, UNLV (13-10, 4-6) built a lead on fast breaks and alley-oops. The Rebels were running around everywhere, swarming the Rams (20-4, 7-4) on defense and flying over them on offense.
It was the ideal version of this year’s team, the best they’ve played all season.
“That’s how I want our team to work,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
Then, even more quickly than the lead was built, it crumbled. Part of that was inevitable, because Colorado State is too good and experienced to not have a few counterpunches in them and there was no way UNLV could continue to make every shot.
But the advantage UNLV was able to build shouldn’t evaporate from 18 to two in a 7-minute span as it did today at Moby Arena. Good teams don’t give away possessions the way the Rebels did with poor shot selection and a suddenly lethargic offensive energy.
“We got complacent and let up, and that’s something we always do,” said freshman Rashad Vaughn. “It’s something we’re trying to fight, but it just keeps happening.”
Eight of the Rebels’ 10 Mountain West games have come down, basically, to the final minute. UNLV is 2-6 in those games, suggesting that if the idea that a team “just knows how to win” is true, these Rebels certainly don’t possess that trait.
Vaughn played one of his best games, scoring 30 points with four rebounds plus four turnovers in 35 minutes. He hit 6-of-10 beyond the arc, including four in the second half when he was going shot for shot with CSU senior Daniel Bejaran (18 points).
When Colorado State took a seven-point lead early in the second half and tried to pull away, several Rebels came up with plays to keep UNLV in it, but the game wouldn’t have gone down to the wire without Vaughn’s heroics. Pat McCaw and Christian Wood were also big, combining for 32 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists, but Vaughn’s offensive game was on another level.
His defense, however, ended up costing the Rebels in a big spot as Vaughn fouled Gian Clavell on a three-point attempt in a one-point game with 1:02 remaining. Clavell hit all three free throws, McCaw countered with a 3, and after a Colorado State miss UNLV inbounded the ball with 9.8 seconds left and the game on the line.
The resulting play was OK, with Cody Doolin drawing a double team in the middle of the lane and kicking out to Cornish, who was open. It’s as good a look as you can hope to get in that scenario.
“Everybody in the gym thought it was good,” Cornish said.
What’s strange about the play, though, was that the ball didn’t find Vaughn not because he was guarded well, but, according to the players, because he was basically a decoy.
Cornish said he was the third option on the play, after a dribble handoff to McCaw or a Doolin drive, and Vaughn, who didn’t move much on the play, said he was basically just supposed to stand in the corner. Again, the resulting shot was a good look, but of the three players who had solid offensive games, none touched the ball on the final possession.
That’s something the Rebels will just have to live with as they try to absorb another close defeat. At this point, they have plenty of experience dealing with it.