Thursday, March 5, 2015 | 12:30 a.m.
It's a loaded show this week as Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern get into UNLV's tribute to Tark, Tony Sanchez winning the offseason, guessing Stephen Zimmerman's decision and more.
The Rebels gave themselves a chance, and after emerging star Pat McCaw went down early in the second half that’s more than some would have given them. But San Diego State isn’t going to apologize for beating the Rebels short-handed.
The Aztecs won’t feel bad about escaping the Thomas & Mack Center with their Mountain West title hopes intact and the Rebels won’t make excuses for losing another game that came down to the bitter end. UNLV had already lost close conference games with nine, eight and seven available scholarships players, so when McCaw missed the final 14:20 because of concussion-like symptoms, the Rebels’ six remaining guys did the same thing as most of these games: they fought and persevered and ultimately made one too many mistakes before coming up short in a 60-58 loss.
“Whoever we have on Saturday will go into San Jose State and play extremely hard,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who could very likely be without McCaw after the freshman’s face collided with the back of Christian Wood’s head during a defensive possession. Rice said McCaw would be re-evaluated Thursday while there haven’t been any updates on Rashad Vaughn or Dantley Walker’s knee injuries that suggest they’d be ready to go for Saturday’s 7 p.m. tip at a Spartans team that hasn’t beaten a Division I opponent in more than a year.
The Rebels (16-14, 7-10) have now lost three consecutive Senior Nights at the Mack and will be the No. 7 seed in next week’s Mountain West tournament, the lowest they’ve ever finished in the Mountain West. UNLV will play Wednesday at 2:30 p.m., most likely against UNR, and with a win it would likely face San Diego State (23-7, 13-4) again at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Despite everything that went wrong — four turnovers in first four minutes, McCaw’s injury, Dwayne Morgan (13 points on six shots) playing four second-half minutes because of foul trouble — it still came down to the final minute. UNLV has consistently shown the ability to, no matter the opponent or available players, keep the game close into the final minutes.
The way it plays out is even strikingly similar. The Rebels went into halftime ahead for the 13th straight game, a streak that started with their trip to SDSU, and then immediately gave it away.
UNLV has now been outscored by 40 in the first five minutes of the second half in league play. Throw in McCaw exiting the game shortly after that it would have been easy for the Rebels to wilt away, though that would have been a surprise.
Only once, at Utah State, has UNLV been blown out down the stretch, and the collective group wouldn’t let it happen against SDSU. Jordan Cornish hit a couple of big 3-pointers, Jelan Kendrick filled up the stat sheet, Goodluck Okonoboh played some great defense and Wood grabbed 16 rebounds after tallying a season-low three in the last meeting.
“I thought we didn’t have anything to hang our heads about,” said senior Cody Doolin, who scored 12 points with three rebounds and four assists to no turnovers.
Most of the 13,454 in the announced crowd would agree. This went down to the wire as another classic game in this rivalry, but as has been the case for most of the conference season it was the Rebels’ opponents making winning plays.
The big three: SDSU’s Trey Kell snared an errant pass and laid it in for a two-point lead with 1:14 left, JJ O’Brien drove past Okonoboh for a four-point lead in the final 20 seconds and Winston Shepard made both free throws on a one-and-one with 10.3 seconds left that pushed the margin back to four.
“They wore us down,” Doolin said. “We ran out of gas.”
San Diego State’s full-court pressure and double teams had their desired effects on UNLV. And whether it was early, late or in the middle, O’Brien was great for SDSU, finishing with a career-high 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting with six rebounds, two assists and two steals in 39 minutes.
“He does anything his team needs,” said Rice, who had recruited O’Brien when he transferred from Utah in 2011.
Rice even put O’Brien next to Boise State’s Derrick Marks in the conversation for Mountain West Player of the Year. Marks will be the runaway winner because he has far superior numbers and Boise swept SDSU, but Doolin, who also played against O’Brien while at San Francisco, said opponents appreciate how important O’Brien is to his team.
“The thing I always notice about him is he’s always under control and never looks like he forces anything,” Doolin said. “And defensively, he’s always in the right spot.”
UNLV could very well play the Aztecs again in this building in another week. It’s impossible to say how many scholarship players the Rebels will have available, but odds are they’ll be prepared to fight until the end.
Winning is a different story.