Lenny Ignelzi / AP
Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015 | 7:15 p.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.
That UNLV showed up with energy and swarmed all over the court against its rival at Viejas Arena should surprise no one. Even less shocking was that a rotation that got almost nothing from its bench ran out of gas down the stretch against a San Diego State team that applies full-court pressure the entire game.
“Maybe gas, or maybe energy. Maybe energy is gas,” said freshman Pat McCaw. “Something’s got to fuel us.”
McCaw, who moved into the starting lineup, was that fuel early and for most of the game, but collectively UNLV (10-8, 1-4) had nothing left at the end as the Aztecs (14-4, 4-1) used a 22-5 run to take the lead in the final minutes and pull away for a 53-47 victory today. The Rebels have now lost five out of six and sit 3.5 games back of first place in the Mountain West only five games into the conference schedule.
McCaw had 15 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals and three turnovers, and fellow freshman Rashad Vaughn scored a game-high 17 points with five rebounds and four assists. However, almost none of that production came in the game’s critical minutes.
UNLV was able to build an 11-point lead early in the second half, but San Diego State whittled away at it when shots finally started to drop. San Diego State attacked the interior, leading points in the paint 36-18, and wore down the Rebels’ starters, who all played at least 32 minutes. Vaughn and McCaw each logged 37, and the bench scored no points.
“We got tired at the end, refs made a couple of bad calls but it’s just the little things once again,” Vaughn said. “We’re a young team and we’ve got to mature.”
SDSU guard Aqeel Quinn put the Aztecs ahead for the first time in a long time with 5:09 remaining, but it was forwards JJ O’Brien and Angelo Chol combining for 15 second-half points that really put the Aztecs in that position. Chol got where he wanted against UNLV freshmen Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh, the latter limited down the stretch with four fouls.
“That did hurt us. He knew he was in foul trouble,” McCaw said.
The Aztecs barely took a lead in time to bring into play their streak of winning 132 straight games when leading at the 5-minute mark, but after that getting to 133 was easy. UNLV led most of the game and it was tied with 5:46 to play, and then by the 2-minute mark SDSU led by eight.
McCaw made a 3 with 7:59 to play, and the Rebels didn’t make another field goal until a meaningless layup in the final seconds.
“That’s big-time defense, and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” said SDSU junior Winston Shepard, a Findlay Prep product.
Vaughn, McCaw and UNLV coach Dave Rice said they were pleased with UNLV’s energy and enthusiasm in the wake of the dreadful first half and overtime Tuesday at Boise State. Of course, getting up for this game has never been an issue for the Rebels.
The bigger question is whether it transfers over to Wednesday night at home against New Mexico, when the Rebels will try to start crawling out of the league’s cellar. The player who took the most flak after the Boise State loss, sophomore Christian Wood, struggled again today and sat out the final 2:53.
The Aztecs doubled Wood every time he got the ball in the post, and he finished with two points on 1-of-4 shooting, three rebounds, three blocks, three turnovers and an assist in 32 minutes. O’Brien, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds in a game-high 38 minutes, was the main defender on Wood.
“Today he brought it,” Shepard said of O’Brien. “Chris Wood brings a lot of matchup problems, but I think a player like JJ makes it tough for him.”
Other than the collapse down the stretch, UNLV’s biggest problems were giving up 15 offensive rebounds and committing 16 turnovers. Those two areas led to a lot of extra SDSU possessions that the Aztecs turned into 20 points.
The offensive rebounds are nothing new, but the surprising thing is that many of the turnovers weren’t even a direct result of SDSU’s pressure. UNLV had 10 turnovers by halftime, many of them just careless passes on the offensive end, and led by seven at the break.
“In a low-possession game against a team that’s going to hold the ball and try to control tempo, you can’t give up turnovers for touchdowns so to speak,” Rice said.
Now that he’s in there, it’s unlikely McCaw moves out of the starting lineup. Whether other changes are coming this week remains to be seen, but what’s clear is the status quo isn’t good enough, whether the Rebels like their energy or not.
“We can’t look back at the past now,” McCaw said. “We have to get better.”