Orlin Wagner / AP
Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015 | 6 p.m.
For most of the game, no one without a chyron on their TV would have been able to tell which team was ranked No. 13 and which just lost in Wyoming. The Rebels went toe to toe for a long time in college basketball’s toughest venue, and by the end they emerged as one of the most optimistic teams on a two-game losing streak you could ever find.
“Obviously we’re not happy we lost, but dang if we didn’t battle,” said senior guard Cody Doolin, who led UNLV (9-5, 0-1) with 12 points and seven assists.
Bad starts to both halves and getting dominated on the boards 45-31 were a few of the main factors in the Rebels’ 76-61 loss to the 13th-ranked Jayhawks (11-2) today at Allen Fieldhouse. They also looked like they were simply out of gas during the key stretch, when Kansas pulled away with a 23-6 run, though UNLV coach Dave Rice wouldn’t blame the illness that clearly seemed to affect freshman Rashad Vaughn.
“We were right there,” Rice said. “They didn’t out-effort us in the second half, they just out-executed us.”
Healthy or not, Vaughn — who scored 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting with four turnovers — may have struggled against former Findlay Prep teammate Kelly Oubre. Oubre didn’t shoot very well but continued his recent stretch of solid performances with 12 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while often denying Vaughn from getting to the spots he was driving toward.
“It was a personal game for me,” Oubre said. “Me and Rashad, we go way back since last year and years past. Just playing against him, that was my goal today, just do the best I can on defense against him, because I know he’s one of the best scorers in the country, if not the best.”
UNLV was lost at the start, chucking up three 3-pointers (all misses) in the first four minutes as Kansas opened with a nine-point lead. And then, in an intimidating environment, the Rebels came up with an excellent response.
It was a team effort throughout the first half — no player had more than eight points at halftime — but freshman Goodluck Okonoboh contributed one of the best 20 minutes of his career. At the break he had six points, five blocks and four rebounds, a big reason UNLV was able to go into halftime with a four-point lead.
“He was the best player in the game in the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
However, just like the game Wednesday at Wyoming, the momentum shifted to the home team immediately in the second half. The Jayhawks quickly found holes in the zone the Rebels switched to and a four-point lead was a four-point deficit less than three minutes in.
“We ended the first half so well, then we came out and just let them right out of the hole,” Doolin said. “We’ve got to work on coming out of the locker room and staying solid. … It put us in a hole that we never really recovered from.”
Actually, the Rebels recovered pretty well, for a time. It was after that initial swing that the game’s intensity started to build and the arena began to pulse.
UNLV countered every play it gave up with one of its own, and a little 8-0 run on two Christian Wood 3-pointers and a Doolin layup put UNLV back on top. Then, among other things, Frank Mason happened.
KU’s sophomore point guard started the key run with a layup and finished it with an assist, his fourth during that stretch. Rice said Mason had been at the top of UNLV’s scouting report, but once he got rolling the Rebels didn’t have an answer. That’s the type of player Mason has been for Kansas, averaging more than 33 minutes per game.
“I don’t think we’ve ever leaned on somebody as much as we lean on Frank,” Self said.
It could have been different. Freshman Pat McCaw had three open second-half 3-point attempts rattle in and out of the rim, and Rice put the rebounding imbalance on his guards not contributing the way they had in recent games.
Still, the Rebels continue conference play Wednesday at home against UNR confident that performances like the past two games will net positive results in the Mountain West race. The game tapes show a lot of things to fix other than just the slow starts — defending pick-and-rolls, defensive rebounding, etc. — and they also show a team that has some resiliency to fight back.
Projecting a race that already features two of the other top teams — Colorado State and San Diego State — with a league loss is akin to playing cornhole blindfolded. At this stage, the Rebels feel they have as good a chance as anybody else, even if it took a couple of losses to get there.
“We’re getting better. I think everyone can see that,” Doolin said. “We’re going to have a chance to contend in this conference.”