Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015 | 10 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern have given up trying to predict UNLV's performances as the Rebels responded from an ugly home loss to go win by eight at New Mexico.
Although he’s coming off one of his best games, Morgan hasn’t had a particularly good freshman season. Yet on the possessions he was assigned to Wyoming senior Larry Nance Jr., who dominated Morgan and the Rebels’ bigs last time around, Morgan got in Nance’s ear and under his skin, helping Nance struggle to a 3-for-10 shooting performance.
“When his number is called, he’s ready to play; he’s out there giving it his all,” Pat McCaw said of Morgan, who played more than 20 minutes in back-to-back games for the first time since December. “That’s his game when he gets in other guys’ heads.”
Similarly, Okonoboh has yet to meet an on-court challenge, verbal or physical, he’s prepared to back down from. The same way that fury fuels those guys, McCaw’s motor runs on the unbridled joy of five guys on the same page turning defense into free-flowing offense.
Sometimes McCaw did that on his own, like when he pawed away junior Josh Adams’ crossover and eschewed a transition layup for a transition 3-pointer. More often he was the triggerman or just one of the guys sprinting down the court for some of UNLV’s 15 points off turnovers.
It takes different things to get different guys playing at their best, and tonight against Wyoming (21-8, 10-6) the Rebels (16-13, 7-9) found those triggers up and down the roster. Morgan and Okonoboh were snarling, McCaw was smiling, and after getting benched following a scoreless first half, Christian Wood started eating his way to his 16th double-double in UNLV’s 69-57 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Chris had a rough first half, and he told me at half he was going to bring it and that’s what he did,” McCaw said. “I was glad he started playing harder in the second half. We started running, everybody was playing together and it was fun.”
After the Utah State loss Tuesday, UNLV coach Dave Rice hinted at accountability for Wood, who’s been dogged with questions about effort much of the season but still leads the team in minutes. Wood was scoreless on one shot in 12 first-half minutes as Cody Doolin’s 10 points led the team and Morgan filled in the front court.
The Rebels have had trouble early in the second half all season, and tonight Rice came out of halftime with Morgan starting in Wood’s place.
“Those were the five guys that I thought played the best and were the most ready in the first half,” Rice said. “I always want to reward guys for doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Wood came in before the first media timeout and rarely sat down again, piling up a double-double in the second half alone to finish with 10 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes. He scored the first and last baskets of UNLV’s critical 10-0 run that basically put the game away with four minutes to play, celebrating the latter shot by scooping up a large helping of imaginary sustenance.
Nance is clearly still getting his legs under him after missing four games because of mononucleosis, although UNLV deserves a lot of credit for aiding his struggles. This was Nance’s second game back, and he had to fight for all of his nine points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes before fouling out for the first time this season.
Picking up for Nance was Adams, who led all scorers with 24 points. However, Adams had 21 points with nine minutes remaining, and from then on the task was on McCaw to step up the harassment.
“Pat really dug down and guarded Josh Adams,” Rice said. “That has everything to do with our team but also Patrick’s defense.”
The actual Mack attendance didn’t come close to the announced 12,659, but those who did turn out saw one of UNLV’s better team performances of the season. McCaw had two steals, but he disrupts the opponents’ offense much more than that lets on. And ever since leading scorer Rashad Vaughn went down with a knee injury, McCaw has been contributing more on offense, too.
McCaw didn’t score 20 points once when Vaughn was healthy, but in the five games since Vaughn went down McCaw has reached that plateau three times, including a team-high 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting tonight.
“I planned on filling that void,” McCaw said of Vaughn’s 17.8 points per game. “I have to lead out there, because if I don’t I knew the team wouldn’t be as successful.”
In four months, McCaw has gone from afterthought recruit to team leader while playing four positions as UNLV’s most complete player at both ends. It doesn’t get easier for the Rebels, who on Wednesday host a San Diego State team trying to secure at least a share of the Mountain West title, but if McCaw finds his happy place, they should at least have a shot.
“When everybody’s defending that translates to offense, and when we get out and running it’s kind of scary,” McCaw said.