Isaiah J. Downing / AP
Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 | 3:20 p.m.
A one-point loss at Colorado State is no shame, except when it comes on the heals of an already middling Mountain West slate. Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern get into UNLV's latest setback and the perception of the team at 13-10.
Stripped down to its most basic element, UNLV’s gameplan today at Clune Arena was very simple. And judged only by delivering on that plan, the Rebels failed completely.
“We literally don’t want to let them shoot a 3-point shot,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
The Falcons caught fire beyond the arc in the second half, especially sophomore guard Zach Kocur, who hit 5-of-7 from deep after halftime. That included the decisive shot from the top of the key that put Air Force ahead by five with 43 seconds left.
Two years ago, the Rebels came to Air Force and looked like they had never practiced guarding backdoor cuts on the way to a 15-point loss. It wasn’t as egregious this time around, but an offense playing its first game without leading scorer Rashad Vaughn was pretty solid, yet once again the defense didn’t do what it was supposed to do and the result was a 76-75 loss.
“We talked about it every timeout, we talked about it before the game, we worked on it the last two days,” Rice said. “… They did a good job running their zone offense, but we didn’t do a good job of locating. We made too many defensive errors.”
UNLV (14-11, 5-7) has now lost back-to-back road conference games by just one point, and the average margin of defeat in seven conference losses (3.7 points per game) actually feels high. On the other hand, the only reason this game got to one point was a Christian Wood 3-pointer at the buzzer that didn’t mean anything except for Wood, who finished with a career-high 31 points, and bettors. The number was Air Force minus-1 or minus-1.5 depending on when and where it was bet.
Wood was solid the whole game, shooting 11-of-17 from the field and 8-for-8 at the free-throw line while also registering nine rebounds and five blocks. Freshman Pat McCaw also scored a career-high 20 points, all of them coming in the second half after he was limited early by foul trouble.
“I was locked in,” McCaw said. “Once I get a nice rhythm going, I think every shot I take is probably going to go in if it’s a good look.”
At one point, McCaw scored 12 straight points, all of them on 3-pointers, and UNLV looked to be in good position if only it could help the Falcons cool down at the 3-point line. That never happened.
The Rebels started in a 1-3-1 zone defense and then went mostly to their 2-3 zone, occasionally switching throughout the game. There were holes the entire game, but it was OK in the first half when both teams were struggling offensively and combined to hit 5-of-25 from deep.
But the action quickly picked up in the second half as Air Force (11-13, 4-9) would go on to score as many points in the final 20 minutes (51) as both teams combined to score in the first half. The Falcons shot 69.2 percent from 3 in the second half, and overall they hit 42.4 percent from the field for the game.
That’s more than 8 percentage points lower than UNLV, plus the Rebels led rebounding 40-27, but UNLV’s turnovers nullified that advantage. Air Force led points off turnovers 20-10 thanks to UNLV’s 16 giveaways while the Falcons protected the ball much better.
“How about five turnovers in the whole game? How about 24 assists on 25 field goals? That’s sharing the juice right there,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “That’s playing unselfish. That’s pretty good basketball. That’s a good win. I’m a little fired up, as you can see.”
These teams met two weeks ago in the Thomas & Mack Center and UNLV won by 11, but since then Vaughn has gone out indefinitely with a torn meniscus in his left knee while Air Force got leading scorer Max Yon back into the lineup. Yon didn’t do much and reserve forward Justin Hammonds missed the game with a rib injury, but Air Force executed what it wanted offensively while doing what it could on defense against Wood, McCaw and Goodluck Okonoboh, who had 10 points and four rebounds.
Asked whether he thought about switching to a man defense when Air Force started hitting 3s, Rice said that wasn’t the plan.
“It wasn’t about what defense we were in; it was about our sense of execution in terms of running guys off the line,” Rice said. “… We knew what we were supposed to do and we didn’t do it, especially in the second half.”
With 1:50 left and UNLV trailing by four, Rice called a timeout. The Rebels came out and turned it over.
Then with 1:11 remaining, McCaw pulled UNLV within two and Rice used his final timeout to set up a full-court press. Air Force broke the pressure within five seconds, and soon after Kocur buried his dagger.
“I thought we were composed at the end of the game. I thought we didn’t rattle, we didn’t splinter,” Pilipovich said. “I’m not saying they did. I’m just saying we didn’t splinter or rattle.”
Pilipovich is right that UNLV didn’t splinter at the end of the game. Like several of the Rebels’ close losses this season, it started long before that.