Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015 | 12:05 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern reflect on UNLV's tough 16-day stretch of games and what it means for the Rebels as they turn their full attention to Mountain West play.
The ebbs and flows of the Mountain West race will probably pull the leader back within reach, but if the Rebels fail to win the league for the 15th straight season — and it’s now a long shot at best — they can draw the line directly back to Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Facing the easiest week of games it will have all conference season, UNLV (9-6, 0-2) got outhustled and outplayed on its home court by a mediocre UNR (6-8, 2-0) team that owns a three-game winning streak in the series.
“We have to get tougher, that’s the bottom line,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said after losing 64-62. “We lost that game tonight because we weren’t tough enough.”
UNR’s Marqueze Coleman sank the deciding shot, only his second make of the game, on a long two-point shot off a screen with 4.8 seconds left. Rice said there were at least two defensive errors on the play, a fitting end for a team that looked out of sorts throughout the game.
UNLV did some things well, including hitting 15-of-16 at the free-throw line, but it failed big at one of its keys entering the game. The Rebels were killed in the rebounding battle at Kansas and they came in focused on keeping the Wolf Pack, and especially AJ West, off the offensive glass.
With 3:02 remaining, West fought through a Christian Wood block and a couple other defenders to grab two offensive boards and put in a go-ahead layup. West finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, 10 of those coming on the defensive end.
“They came in here and played harder than us,” said UNLV senior Cody Doolin said.
Rebels fans are used to in-state losing streaks in football, but on the hardwood it has only happened five times since 1962. Considering UNR’s RPI was sub-300 coming into the game, this one stings on multiple levels, though hearing West’s comments probably cut deep since there’s not much to refute it.
“Since my tenure, it feels like this is our state,” the junior told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
West, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, started his career at Monroe College so he’s perfect against UNLV. And to hear Rice tell it, all West did to get to 3-0 was beat UNLV’s big men the way they’re consistently beat by a redshirt player.
“It’s the same thing Ben Carter does to us every day in practice,” Rice said of the Bishop Gorman High grad who’s sitting out this season.
Every question pretty much led back to toughness for Rice and Doolin. Few who watched the game would argue, although the shots did occasionally come above the neck.
Wood took a couple of free throws in the first half for a flagrant one foul on an elbow near his chin, at least the third flagrant foul he’s been involved in this season. Before toeing the line, Wood walked over to UNR’s bench, smiled at the coaches and told them, “I flopped.”
Related or not, Wood ended up catching a finger to the eye on the ensuing possession and he was getting pushed around all night, though the freshman did finish with 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Rashad Vaughn led all scorers with 20 points, including two free throws that tied the game with 13.6 seconds left.
Coleman was 1-for-8 before his game-winner, and it wasn’t a great look. UNLV lost the game before that on the countless possessions where the Wolf Pack clearly played like they wanted to win more than the home team.
“We have to hit people. It’s a physical game,” Doolin said. “We got out-toughed in our own building tonight.”
The Rebels are home again Saturday against San Jose State, and responding from this loss with a huge victory won’t mean much considering the Spartans just lost by 22 to Air Force. That game is essentially a bye, but what follows are back-to-back road trips to Boise State and San Diego State.
UNLV’s margin of error is now miniscule, yet a team that doesn’t come prepared to defend its home court against an in-state rival on a winning streak doesn’t seem like one that’s suddenly going to go tearing through the league. With basically an entirely new roster, not playing hard against one of the teams likely to finish near the bottom of the league has bitten Rice’s team once again, and it invites all sorts of concerns about the future.
“This falls on all of us,” Doolin said.