Rick Bowmer / AP
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 | 7 p.m.
An airball sprung Derrick Jones Jr. off the bench, the freshman pogo stick entering the game 45 seconds into the second half with UNLV trailing Division II Chaminade by six. By the time he came to a rest — 13 minutes, 18 points, six rebounds and two steals later — the Rebels were ahead comfortably, and the second-best highlight of his young career was still to come.
This game, a 93-73 UNLV victory, probably shouldn’t have needed a burst like that, but the Rebels (4-1) will take it all the same as they overcame an ugly first half to move past the Silverswords (0-4). The win gives UNLV a second chance to go home with a quality victory in Wednesday’s fifth-place game against No. 13 Indiana, which lost to Wake Forest and then defeated St. John’s.
“Our team was really down after last night,” said coach Dave Rice. “… But you come here as a group, as a team, trying to find out your identity, trying to see who in your program has toughness, who can bounce back.”
Jones has plenty of bounce, more than literally everyone in the Lahaina Civic Center and probably more than anyone on this island. But he and the Rebels were grounded the first 20 minutes, getting outrebounded 25-18 by a small team while shooting 2-of-11 on 3s and 9-of-17 at the free-throw line.
Freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. sat out the game as a precaution while recovering from a stomach illness that has affected a handful of UNLV’s traveling party. One absence shouldn’t make that big of a difference in a matchup this lopsided, though, as UNLV was showing signs of an emotional hangover from Monday’s 77-75 loss to UCLA that could have gone their way and would have advanced them to a showdown with No. 5 Kansas.
“We had to fight through the aches and pains,” said sophomore guard Pat McCaw, who set a new career high in points (25) for the second time in three games. “But in the second half, Coach was just preaching we've got to bring energy and effort.”
Those are Jones’ hallmarks, so when senior guard Ike Nwamu hoisted an airballed 3 before the ball ever went inside on UNLV’s first second-half possession, Rice quickly called for Jones. The rest of the game was mostly figuring out by how much UNLV would win, with Jones adding a punctuation in the last five minutes on a coast-to-coast dunk he couldn’t really explain.
“Um, I don't know,” Jones said. “I mean, I just caught the ball and they overplayed me, so I just crossed over, went down the lane and did what I do.”
Said Rice, “It’s an everyday occurrence.”
The only overall problem that lingered through the whole game was UNLV’s free-throw shooting. A few more makes at the line could have made a difference against UCLA, and today’s 15-of-30 isn’t good enough against most Division I competition.
When asked specifically about free throws after the game, Rice responded by talking about only five guys being able to play at a time and trying to “bind” the team together.
“Our guys are playing with a tremendous amount of pressure,” Rice said. “My job as a coach is to make the game fun. Basketball's supposed to be fun. When you play in Las Vegas, it's a privilege to put that UNLV uniform on. There is great tradition. But I don't want our guys to have the weight of the world on our shoulders. That's my job, that's the coaches' job.”
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.
No one would argue that this team isn’t better when they’re running around smiling and moving the ball around, but the pressure is far more on this coaching staff than any of the players. Rice nearly didn’t get a fifth season at UNLV, and Indiana will be favored to send the Rebels home without a Division I victory for the second time in as many trips to this tournament.
There are plenty of things to be concerned with, but there are also guys like McCaw and Jones and junior Ben Carter who show what this team is capable of looking like. And as disappointing as UNLV’s first half was, there’s no doubt it will respond Wednesday with a better performance against a name-brand opponent. Zimmerman is expected to return to the starting lineup and the Rebels have another opportunity to release whatever pressure they might be feeling.
“We had to fight today,” Rice said, “and it was way more about ourselves than anything else.”
Walker faces Rebels
Former Rebel Dantley Walker is known for one thing — 3-point shooting — and he tried to use that to his advantage against UNLV on Tuesday.
Walker, now a sophomore guard at Chaminade, played 16 minutes, recording three assists a steal and a rebound. He also took four shots, not one of them beyond the arc.
Walker, Nevada’s all-time leading prep 3-point shooter, used a few pump fakes to drive to the basket for some open looks but wasn’t able to convert, going 0-for-4. That’s as many 2-point attempts as Walker had all of last season.