Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 | 12:10 a.m.
It's a pivotal week for UNLV basketball with two road games at Boise State and San Diego State. Las Vegas Sun sports writer Taylor Bern is skeptical in the wake of the Rebels' loss to UNR while sports editor Ray Brewer is ready to crown UNLV as Mountain West tournament champs.
Considering these teams’ recent history at Taco Bell Arena, it should surprise no one that UNLV and Boise State went to overtime Tuesday night.
Considering the way several Rebels played the first half — like they’d rather be at a Taco Bell back in Las Vegas — it surprised the 4,387 in attendance that this game needed an extra session. That’s all UNLV could muster though.
The Rebels (10-7, 1-3) committed six of their 15 turnovers in overtime, while the Broncos (11-6, 1-3) pulled away for an 82-73 victory. It’s UNLV’s fourth loss in the last five games and third in its last four trips to this building, with three of those four games going to overtime.
“We need to be excited to play,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, ”… and we can’t take a whole half to get there.”
Despite its bad first half, UNLV battled back and led at several moments down the stretch. However, Boise State senior Derrick Marks tied the game with 13.1 seconds remaining after calmly backing down freshman Rashad Vaughn until Marks had an easy look at the basket.
“It’s just my instinct; get to my spot and score. That’s it,” said Marks, who scored a game-high 28 points on 12-of-26 shooting.
Compare that with UNLV’s final possession: Vaughn, who had 20 points and eight rebounds, dribbled the clock down under five seconds and heaved an NBA-range 3-pointer, his second chuck from that deep in the final minute and a half.
Two years ago it was another highly touted freshman out of Findlay Prep, Anthony Bennett, who took a questionable 3-pointer near the end of regulation in a road loss to Boise State. After that game Rice said he was OK with Bennett’s shot. This time it’s clear the coach had something else in mind, and it’s the same thing many UNLV supporters were probably screaming at their TVs.
“We wanted to be aggressive and drive the ball,” Rice said.
Rice had a timeout remaining but wanted to give Vaughn a chance to win the game. UNLV could have been in a different position if freshman Pat McCaw had made both free throws instead of just one the previous possession, though when you go down that road you see that Boise State’s Nick Duncan missed a front end only seconds before McCaw. The free throw line giveth and it taketh away.
At the start of the game, senior Cody Doolin seemed like the only one who cared about the outcome, scoring 12 of the team’s first 14 points. Once he cooled off the team was listless.
“I think guys just weren’t ready to play,” said McCaw, who also put some blame on himself. “We started off slow, and when guys take bad shots then other guys fall out of it. If they’re not getting enough touches then guys just don’t want to play. I think that’s pretty much what happened the first half.”
Doolin didn’t play much in the second half, but Vaughn, Christian Wood and especially McCaw picked up the offensive load while stabilizing things for stretches on defense. After going scoreless in the first half, Wood slogged his way to his 10th double-double, complete with a flex to the crowd early in the half after dunking a blocked shot.
Bizarre as it was, Wood was better in the second half, and McCaw came up with a play, whether it was a shot, assist or block, whenever UNLV needed a spark. McCaw finished with a career-high 17 points with four assists, two rebounds, a block, a steal and no turnovers, but all he could focus on were the plays that weren’t made.
“It’s tough to watch from the sidelines when you know guys can go much harder,” McCaw said. “And then for me it’s tough after a loss when you know you should have played harder than you did.”
UNLV’s starters combined for 10 turnovers, including three each from Wood and senior Jelan Kendrick. Until overtime the shooting wasn’t terrible and the Rebels even caught fire beyond the arc in the second half, with Wood and McCaw burying back-to-back treys to take the lead with 4:20 remaining. But even optimists would have a hard time putting a nice spin on this one.
Playing without its best player — senior Anthony Drmic is out for the year — and still searching for its first league win, Boise State played like the better team for most of the game. A team without a guy listed above 6-foot-9 in its main rotation led the Rebels 40-28 in points in the paint and outrebounded them 41-32.
UNLV doesn’t have San Jose State to bounce back against, either. Instead, the Rebels must regroup from this one with a Saturday date at Viejas Arena against San Diego State.
“We don’t have a choice,” Rice said of bouncing back. “We’re at the point in the season where every conference game is critically important.”
That’s a tweak to a message Rice started repeating before conference play even started, yet obviously it hasn’t gotten through. Year after year Rice’s teams don’t seem to understand what it takes to win on the road in the Mountain West, or seem to think that opponents will be intimidated and fold under the Rebels’ perceived talent.
It doesn’t work that way, no matter how much Wood tries to flex.