Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 | 10 p.m.
It was the type of play that, to many, should have landed UNLV freshman Jordan Cornish an immediate seat on the bench.
On a fast break with 12:55 left and UNLV clinging to a one-point lead, Cornish tried a one-handed dunk but didn’t have the lift, watching a sure two points rattle out and result in a 3-pointer at the other end. When play stopped a few seconds later, Cornish leaned over with his hands on his knees in front of the Rebels’ bench.
UNLV coach Dave Rice stepped toward Cornish, got into his ear and sternly but calmly told him how much botching that shot shifted the game’s momentum. Rice also explained why he wasn’t going to yank the freshman guard.
“You’re playing so hard that I’m not going to take you out because I love your effort, and that’s one of the many good things you do for us is give great effort,” Rice said he told him.
There are many reasons UNLV (11-9, 2-5) was finally able to win a close game tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, not the least of which was one of the most absent-minded end-of-game fouls you’ll ever see, but a big piece was a guy like Cornish fighting through his struggles and coming up big when given the opportunity.
Cornish even had another botched fast-break attempt in the second half. But he also had a go-ahead 3-pointer shortly after his dunk attempt, and Rice trusted him to be on the court at the end. With 43.5 seconds left, Cornish hit three free throws that sparked a UNLV comeback that eventually resulted in a 79-77 overtime victory against Utah State (11-8, 4-3). Cornish finished with 11 points, his most against a Division I team, while his friend Rashad Vaughn led all scorers with a career-high 31 points plus nine rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“That’s as good as it gets in terms of resiliency,” Rice said. “We never quit playing.”
At halftime the Rebels led by eight, and less than six minutes into the second half the lead was gone. It felt like this would play out the same way many UNLV losses had lately, with the Rebels on the wrong end of the game’s most important possessions.
A few seconds before Cornish’s free throws, UNLV’s Christian Wood was called for a foul on a 3-point attempt and Jalen Moore put the Aggies up by eight with 1:02 remaining. UNLV responded with a quick 3-point attempt that missed, and many fans responded by heading for the exits.
Then it happened.
Moore missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Cornish drew the same foul call at UNLV’s end. In the final minute, the Aggies missed three free throws, and inbounding with 8.1 seconds left UNLV trailed by two.
The title of the Rebels’ play call, Winner, is a little misleading since it only sent the game to overtime, but no one had any quibbles with the result as Pat McCaw took a handoff toward the lane and lofted a 12-foot floater that looked like it could have been a shot or an alley-oop attempt to Wood. All that matters is it went in.
UNLV quickly fell behind by six in overtime, but unlike the game at Boise State, the Rebels regrouped and came back again. Wood, who had 11 points and seven rebounds, ran full out and was rewarded with a transition dunk, and in the end the Rebels just needed a defensive stop to likely force a second overtime.
Then it happened.
Utah State freshman David Collette had a great overall game, scoring the second-most points of his career (24) on 12-of-16 shooting with three blocks. But the only play he will be able to think about is why on earth he fouled Cody Doolin 84 feet from the basket after UNLV got the missed shot it needed.
Doolin has had a rough few games. He was almost nonexistent at San Diego State, he was on the bench at the end of the New Mexico game and then again on the bench in the first half tonight, when UNLV really built its lead. Yet with the game on the line, Rice put Doolin in, and the senior point guard responded by boxing out the much larger Collette.
Instead of running back on defense while the clock likely would have run out for a second overtime, Collette wrapped his arms around Doolin like he was intentionally trying to stop the clock. That sent Doolin to the free-throw line with 2.4 seconds left.
“It was pretty dumb,” said Vaughn, who first tried to find a nicer way to describe the play. “… I knew it was over after that.”
Doolin sank both free throws, even though he tried to intentionally miss the second one. It didn’t matter. Utah State could only heave it from half court, and UNLV could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
“Obviously right after it happened I didn’t feel bad, but looking back on it you feel a little sorry for him,” Doolin said.
This was about as far from a perfect victory as the Rebels could get. They settled for too many 3s (9-for-28), got outrebounded by nine and for much of the second half they were thoroughly outplayed at both ends, but for a change they made some of the necessary little plays.
UNLV committed only four turnovers, Goodluck Okonoboh did what he could with an injured right foot (plantar fasciitis) for 20 minutes and the bench outscored the Aggies' bench by nine.
More than anything, UNLV simply needed to remember what it felt like to win. There were plenty of screw-ups along the way and there’s no guarantee one victory turns into two when the Rebels go to UNR on Tuesday looking for payback, but as long as they fight back from their errors they should give themselves a chance.
And now the Rebels at least have some evidence showing they can take advantage of that opportunity.