Wednesday, March 11, 2015 | 7:40 p.m.
Four men's conference basketball tournaments take over three Las Vegas arenas this week, including the Mountain West tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center. Las Vegas Sun sports writers Ray Brewer and Taylor Bern discuss UNLV's outlook as the No. 7 seed.
Dave Rice’s eyes widened as he heard the potential bulletin board — or message board, as it were — material coming from his players. After knocking UNR out of the Mountain West tournament 67-46 in the Thomas & Mack Center, Christian Wood and Jordan Cornish were asked if their legs were tired or if Thursday’s opponent, San Diego State, should be worried. The players took the bait.
“San Diego State should be very worried,” Wood said as Rice straightened up in his chair and thought, probably, of that pulled out of context and shared in the Aztecs locker room.
Before Cornish could finish backing up Wood’s comments, UNLV's coach interjected to make sure that he could get in a few words, even if the players would end up being the only ones quoted in San Diego.
“Obviously we’re equally worried because they’re a fantastic team. You know the deal,” Rice said. “… We’re all worried because it’s the time of year if you get beaten you go home in terms of the conference tournament.”
UNLV (18-14) isn’t going home — or staying home, as it were — for at least another day and a 6 p.m. meeting on CBS Sports Network with SDSU after running away from the Wolf Pack. UNR (9-22) cut its 14-point deficit to three with 10 and a half minutes to play before Wood stemmed the tide with a close shot for two of his 28 points.
A few minutes later, back-to-back 3-pointers by Jelan Kendrick and Jordan Cornish, the first from the top of the key in a half-court set and the second a transition 3 from the right wing, turned a seven-point lead into 13, and the Rebels never looked back. UNLV’s primary goal was to prevent offensive rebounds, and in that area it failed spectacularly, but UNR scored only nine second-chance points off its 20 offensive boards and 20 Wolf Pack turnovers turned into 21 points for UNLV.
Immediately after the game UNR announced that it had fired sixth-year coach David Carter following his third straight losing season. Perhaps sensing this was the end for Carter, Rice opened his postgame comments discussing the guy who won three of their last five meetings.
“David Carter is a fantastic coach. He’s a better person,” Rice said. “He’s one of the best guys in our business.”
The Mountain West returned all 11 of its coaches from 2013-14 for the 2014-15 season, but with Carter’s firing and Utah State coach Stew Morrill retiring there will be at least a couple of changes for next season. Following UNLV’s seventh-place finish there have been conversations about Rice’s job security, too, but for now the future appears to be in his control.
Four games in four days has turned into needing three wins in three days to secure an improbable trip to the NCAA Tournament. That starts with the second game against SDSU in the Mack in the last eight days.
“We’re going to know what they’re running and they’re going to know what we’re running,” said Wood, who coincidentally or not played far more inside the arc than normal in a game with dozens of NBA scouts in the crowd.
Last week the Aztecs kept their regular-season title hopes alive by holding off UNLV 60-58. Freshman Pat McCaw left that meeting because of a concussion with 14:20 remaining, and his first game back today was a mixed bag.
In 34 minutes, McCaw scored five points on 2-of-8 shooting, including 1-of-7 on 3s, with three turnovers, but he also had four steals, three rebounds and three assists. Overall the Rebels just seemed to have him ready for the tournament and Cornish proved a capable fill-in for scoring, notching 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
“When I have a good look I just let it go,” said Cornish, who’s hitting 48.8 percent on 3s this season. “No conscience, just let it go.”
McCaw probably needs to be at least a threat to help keep the Aztecs from collapsing too much on Wood, but his bigger importance will likely be in handling the ball against San Diego State’s full-court press. No matter how worried anyone is the Rebels know turnovers are the quickest route to defeat and another performance like this one from Wood is their best chance to survive another day.
“I’m going to have to show up every game,” Wood said. “… It’s going to be a dogfight.”