Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 | 10:50 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern get into the Rebels' chance for vengeance at UNR after the Rebels managed to finally win a close game. Also, Brewer breaks down some of UNLV football's commits.
For a team that’s lost five conference games that all came down to the final possessions, UNLV doesn’t lack confidence at the end of close games.
Once it was over, the Rebels (12-9, 3-5) said they knew they were going to win tonight at the Lawlor Events Center, but more important than those words was that they played like it. After leading nearly the entire game, UNLV trailed by three with 4:30 remaining. It responded by scoring on six of its next seven possessions to turn that deficit into a 67-62 victory against UNR (6-13, 2-5).
“We’ve been in so many close games, that even though a lot of the games we’ve been losing we’ve been learning a lot about how to close out games,” said freshman forward Goodluck Okonoboh. “I’m going to be honest — I knew we were going to win that game.”
Since injuring his right foot in a loss at San Diego State, Okonoboh sat out of the loss against New Mexico and then played 20 minutes with little production in Saturday’s victory against Utah State. The plantar fasciitis is causing him pain but playing isn’t going to make it worse, so Okonoboh figured if he was going to play he might as well make it worth the pain.
“I was disappointed in the way I played last game so I told myself, next game I’m going to dominate,” Okonoboh said.
That’s pretty much what happened. Okonoboh hit two shots during closing time, one an assist from Pat McCaw and the other assisted from Jelan Kendrick, and his defense was even more impressive. The five blocks are customary at this point, but more important, Okonoboh was able to deny UNR’s AJ West so well that the Wolf Pack couldn’t get the ball inside when it was looking for their best player down the stretch.
“He’s getting way better at finishing plays,” Rice said of Okonoboh. “I thought Goodluck and Jelan Kendrick were the difference in the game tonight.”
Those two have combined for 34 starts this season, but both came off the bench tonight. Okonoboh finished with 13 points and nine rebounds to go with those five blocks, while Kendrick scored nine with four assists to one turnover. Combined they shot 9-for-11, and McCaw was also very efficient with eight points on 3-of-4 shooting to go with six assists, two turnovers and a steal.
“It was all about toughness,” Rice said. “We grew up and got tougher tonight.”
In their last meeting, which was UNR’s third straight victory in the series, it was defensive errors by McCaw and Christian Wood at the end that gave Marqueze Coleman a clean look at the game winner. This time those two teamed up for the key offensive play, with McCaw penetrating and kicking out to Wood for a 3-pointer that put UNLV ahead by four with 1:41 remaining.
Rice liked what senior point guard Cody Doolin had been doing with high ball screens, but when Doolin fouled out with 3:01 left, McCaw was able to pick up right where he left off, slipping a pass to Okonoboh off a screen for a layup that had put the Rebels back on top right before Wood’s 3-pointer.
Wood finished with a team-high 16 points plus 11 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. Much like Okonoboh, the end didn’t feel too dramatic to him.
“I felt like I already knew what was going to happen down the stretch,” Wood said.
UNLV won despite reverting to its nonconference ways at the free-throw line (13-of-25) and despite AJ West posting the exact same point and rebounding totals as last game (15 and 15), even down to grabbing 10 offensive rebounds. It helped that West picked up two fouls and sat for nine minutes in the first half, while UNLV built a 12-point lead before going into halftime up by seven.
The lead evaporated almost instantly, but true to their words the Rebels didn’t look panicked. They looked like a team that’s been through these paces before, that knows it doesn’t have to do absolutely everything right so long as it executes just well enough.
Okonoboh gave the Rebels 26 minutes before fouling out in the final minute. With the game over except for the final score, Okonoboh decided to mess with the student section that was chanting with every step, waiting to yell “Sit down” when he finally reached the bench.
Bad foot and all, Okonoboh paused about halfway down and stood back up, getting the desired reaction out of a group that started turning to chants about the Fremont Cannon once it was clear UNLV would escape with its first true road game of the season. The move wasn’t as impressive as what he did on the court, but judging by Okonoboh’s smile he enjoyed the end just as much as anything that came before it.
“Man, I got them right?” he said.