Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 | 12:30 a.m.
It’s easy to say that two of UNLV’s biggest recurring issues — zone offense and free throws — again led to their downfall Monday night against UCLA. Easy, and accurate.
UNLV showed “flashes of what we’re going to be,” said coach Dave Rice, but the Rebels needed more than flashes to get past the Bruins, who hit their final 23 free throws and advanced in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational with a 77-75 victory at the Lahaina Civic Center.
UNLV has a quick turnaround to face Division II Chaminade at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2, and if the Rebels win they would likely face No. 13 Indiana in the fifth-place game. UCLA moves on to face No. 5 Kansas.
“For large portions of that game,” Rice said, “we played terrific basketball.”
The problem was what happened when the Rebels weren’t rolling and pumping up their boisterous crowd. They don’t always have to be as good as they were in the first five minutes, when their pressure created four steals that helped them take a 16-7 lead.
But they can’t drop off from that to what happened for a long stretch in the first half and another five minutes in crunch time, long draughts of squandered opportunities. And that was the few possessions that even got started.
UCLA coach Steve Alford countered UNLV’s fast start with a 3-2 zone that stymied the Rebels to the point that ESPN2 play-by-play man Sean McDonough told the audience, “It’s almost as if they have no plan” against it. That was during a nine-minute stretch that saw UNLV commit seven turnovers while scoring four points.
“The game changed when they went zone,” Rice said. “We have to continue to play inside-out and continue to play in attack.”
The Rebels didn’t play inside-out, again, because the Bruins didn’t want them to and UNLV too easily gave in. Former Findlay Prep product Jonah Bolden’s 6-foot-10 frame, and even longer wingspan, was a disrupting presence at the top, and for far too long the Rebels didn’t have anything resembling a counter.
The adjustment came in the second half and UNLV again showed some of those flashes, with a wearied Stephen Zimmerman Jr. pumping up the crowd and Pat McCaw penetrating the zone and getting his hands in passing lanes. Zimmerman, who received an IV before the game to help combat a stomach virus, was solid in 32 minutes, recording his third straight double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds plus three blocks and a couple of assists.
“I’m good enough to try to create for my team and produce,” Zimmerman said when asked about his health.
McCaw finished with a team-high 20 points but needed 21 shots to get there. He was 3-of-10 on 3-pointers and two of the makes came in the final eight seconds with the game all but decided. McCaw and Jordan Cornish, two of the team’s best 3-point shooters last season, combined to air ball at least four corner 3 attempts.
With all of their struggles, UNLV rarely trailed by more than five in the second half and took the lead several times, including on Jerome Seagears’s 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining. Then, nothing.
Next up for UNLV is the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, starting with a showdown against UCLA on Monday night. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and sports writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern preview the event.
The Rebels didn’t score for more than five minutes, leaving in their wake a mess of empty possessions. While energy guys Dwayne Morgan and Derrick Jones Jr. watched from the bench for all but 30 seconds of the final 10 minutes, the Rebels again failed to move the ball inside or make the extra pass.
And throughout it all, UCLA just kept making free throws. Bryce Alford, an 82 percent free-throw shooter, missed his first attempt of the game, and no one missed again.
Backup point guard Aaron Holliday went 8-for-8 by himself in the final 1:30, and the difference between UCLA’s trips to the line and UNLV’s 14-of-22 effort was enormous. Especially since Zimmerman missed a pair of front ends on one-and-ones in the final four minutes.
“I thought that was the difference in the game,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said of his team’s free throws.
Bryce Alford got most of his 20 points in the first half, when UNLV struggled to follow its game plan to get the ball out of his hands, and Thomas Welsh filled the void for Tony Parker’s foul trouble with 20 points of his own. UCLA had its own problems, with a talented roster that didn’t always look to be on the same page.
But facing their first big challenge of the season, UCLA made the necessary plays to pull out a victory.
“This was a big test for us and we passed it,” Alford said.
Which means that UNLV failed.