Eric Draper / AP
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015 | 7:45 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer shares his memories of following Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV teams as a kid in Las Vegas and then Brewer and beat writer Taylor Bern get into the latest issues with this year's team and what to expect in Wednesday's game vs. Boise State.
If Dave Rice received a technical foul every time he was several feet out on the court yelling at a ref, the UNLV coach would have been kicked out of several games already. But for whatever reason, most likely that his counterpart earned one less than 30 seconds earlier, this on-court rant with 12:54 left in the second half of a close game was enough for Randy McCall’s crew to issue Rice his first career technical.
Rice wore it like a badge of honor.
“I was just trying to keep up with my man Noodles,” Rice said of New Mexico coach Craig Neal, who earned one for throwing down lip balm in disgust during his own team’s free throw attempts.
The technical isn’t the reason UNLV won, but it was one of many things Rebels supporters had been clamoring for that they finally received. The bigger one was an ability to close out a game by not giving up a lead in the second half and making enough big shots so that the Rebels’ 76-68 victory at The Pit never had to come down to the bitter end.
“One of those games where your shots are falling, the team’s playing together and you’re out there having fun,” said freshman Pat McCaw, who poured in a career-high 22 points with four assists and two steals.
UNLV (15-12, 6-8), which shot 54 percent from the field and nearly 60 percent from 3, now sits in seventh place, one spot out of a first-round bye in the Mountain West tournament entering Tuesday's game at Utah State. Meanwhile, New Mexico (14-13, 6-9) drops to eighth with its first six-game losing streak within a season since 1970-71.
The Rebels were on fire from the start today, a big contrast from their home loss Wednesday when they shot 30 percent from the field. Today it took less than four minutes for UNLV to make more 3-pointers (three) than it had in the entire game against Boise State.
McCaw had two of those, and after each he made sure to give some especially long stares into the crowd or toward New Mexico’s bench. Though he wouldn’t share the exact verbiage, McCaw said Lobos reserve Joe Furstinger said something toward him and the Rebels while passing them in the tunnel before the game.
“That kind of sparked a little fire under me,” McCaw said.
That’s reminiscent of UNLV’s last trip here, a 76-73 victory, when UNM’s Alex Kirk said UNLV would make “a hell of an AAU team,” and the Rebels took it as disrespect. Of course, the majority of UNLV’s current rotation wasn’t even around for that one.
The only Rebels who have played in this arena before, sophomore Christian Wood and senior Jelan Kendrick, were both solid with a combined 34 points and eight rebounds. Kendrick, especially, played one of his best games of the season.
He ran a lot of UNLV’s fast breaks and finished with a team-high seven assists to two turnovers. Kendrick also buried a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer that helped UNLV, which had already surrendered all of its 14-point lead, regain momentum with a five-point halftime lead.
“I think that shot did something, but starting that second half the way we did, those first four minutes were very big because we’ve been doing a poor job of starting second halves,” Kendrick said. “So to come out and start that second half with intensity on the defensive end the way we did was special.”
Coming into the game, UNLV had been outscored by 25 in the first five minutes of the second half in Mountain West games. The worst was Wednesday, when Boise State turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead.
At first, it looked like this was more of the same as New Mexico scored the first four points of the second half, but McCaw and Kendrick combined to score the team’s first 10 points and kept the Lobos an arm’s length away. That continued the rest of the way.
Every time New Mexico looked ready to take the lead, the Rebels came up with an answer. UNLV didn’t have to test itself in the final minutes because after freshman Jordan Cornish hit a 3-pointer with 5:17 remaining, the Lobos never got within three possessions.
“We came back and finished this game in a great manner,” Rice said.
Playing without leading scorer Rashad Vaughn, whose timetable for a return from knee surgery is uncertain, is going to take many different forms for UNLV. Today it meant all five starters played at least 31 minutes, and all of them were productive.
Four scored at least 17 points while Cody Doolin took only one shot but finished with six assists to one turnover. And as good as McCaw and Kendrick were, freshman Goodluck Okonoboh might have been the most important player.
Showcasing post moves and counters that Rice said really started last month at UNR, Okonoboh consistently beat one-on-one defense for 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting while also recording five blocks, four rebounds and two assists.
“I guess the basketball gods were on our side today,” Okonoboh said.
They couldn’t allow Rice’s first T to come in a loss.