Jeremy Rincon / Special to the Sun
Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015 | 10:45 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.
A glance at the Mountain West standings has to induce at least a cringe for anyone with a UNLV rooting interest, because as the league logjams at the midway point, the Rebels’ past sins keep them on the outside looking in.
Right now, though, there’s nothing the Rebels can do about that other than win, and wearing their road black uniforms in the Thomas & Mack Center tonight that’s exactly what they did. As soon as UNLV (13-9, 4-5) cut down on its 3-point attempts, the rest fell into place as the Rebels enter their bye week with a 74-63 victory against Air Force (9-12, 2-8).
Five teams are within one game of the first-place tie (San Diego State and Wyoming) and seven are within two games, but the Rebels sit three games back. After a week to practice, UNLV heads to Colorado State (19-3, 6-3) next Saturday for its only meeting this season with the Rams.
Tonight the Falcons had a problem with their road jerseys, hence UNLV helping out and letting them wear home uniforms on the road, but Air Force’s issues go much deeper than laundry. Without their two best players — seniors Kamryn Williams (Achilles) and Max Yon (out for personal reasons) — the Falcons haven’t been able to accomplish much of anything.
UNLV helped continue that trend with a little help from little-used guard Dantley Walker, whom coach Dave Rice credited with changing the game during his four minutes on the court.
“He turned the momentum in the first half,” Rice said. “… The only agenda he has when he gets in there is to keep the ball moving.”
Air Force’s zone was so inviting to the Rebels that they heaved 17 first-half 3-point attempts, many before first getting the ball inside. The last attempt, though, brought probably the largest cheer of the night from the 13,137 announced attendance as Walker drained a 3 in the final 10 seconds to give the Rebels a five-point halftime lead.
About a minute earlier Walker, who hasn't played more than a minute since the San Jose State victory, pump-faked and dished off to Jelan Kendrick, reminding fans he’s not only the state’s all-time leading scorer but also its leading assist man.
“Teammates make it easy for me,” Walker said. “It’s just fun being back playing basketball again.”
When Walker enters the game, the crowd starts to buzz. He’s a fan favorite because at 5-foot-10 with hair as red as the midcourt logo, Walker doesn’t look like he belongs. The fans’ joy comes from watching him show otherwise.
“He gets the most applause and he’s a good teammate,” said freshman Pat McCaw, who had 11 points with six assists to one turnover. “He makes it fun.”
As much as Rice wanted to give Walker credit, the guys who did most of the heavy lifting were UNLV’s usual faces. Sophomore Christian Wood led the way with 17 points and 10 rebounds for his 12th double-double, and Rashad Vaughn and Cody Doolin each matched McCaw with 11 points.
After a solid game in the win at UNR, Kendrick turned in probably his best game of the season: 15 points, five rebounds and five assists with no turnovers and two steals in 29 minutes. Kendrick led a lot of UNLV’s transition possessions, and outside of blowing a dunk that ruined McCaw’s highlight play, he was good from start to finish.
“We’re seeing so much zone and he’s good at finding gaps,” Rice said. “Bottom line is guys have to go find a gap, and he’s very good at diagnosing what’s there.”
For the most part, the Rebels did what they were supposed to do. Air Force is undermanned and undersized, and UNLV forced 15 turnovers while committing only five, which led to a healthy 27-3 advantage in points off turnovers.
Tonight’s game wasn’t some big revelation. Walker isn’t suddenly going to get 20 minutes a game, and the Rebels aren’t back into the thick of the conference race.
Instead it was a check next to a list that has at least 10 items remaining. The Rebels had to fight at times, but there was never a feeling that this was going to get away from them, which is exactly the type of control and confidence that should be exhibited in a mismatch like this one.
UNLV can’t win more than one game at a time, so for now this victory and three in a row will have to do.