Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016 | 8:24 p.m.
They came one after another, ceaselessly, like storm waves breaking against a faltering sea wall. And late in the first half, the levee finally broke, as Arizona State’s constant barrage of 3-pointers washed over UNLV and drowned the Rebels in a 97-73 loss.
Arizona State finished the game with 18 3-pointers, tying a program record, and each long-range splashdown served to further erode the Rebels’ resolve.
UNLV fell behind by double digits in the opening minutes and spent the rest of the half treading water, eventually pulling within five points when Arizona State’s lead was cut to 34-29 with four minutes left in the half. But the Sun Devils responded with a 17-3 run (powered by four 3-pointers) to take an insurmountable 51-32 lead into the break.
When the first-half buzzer sounded, ASU had connected on 13-of-22 from 3-point range. UNLV never got closer than 14 points in the second half.
The constant pounding from the 3-point line took its toll on the Rebels’ collective spirit.
“They made a lot of tough shots,” senior forward Tyrell Green said. “But we can’t let that affect us. We can’t look defeated. We’ve got to keep going and keep playing. There was a lot of game left and I feel like we looked kind of defeated at times when they were making those Hail Mary threes.”
UNLV played most of the first half in a zone defense, which allowed ASU’s trio of quick-trigger guards to open fire just about every time down the court. Shannon Evans led the way with 28 points (5-of-8 from 3-point range), while Torian Graham torched the Rebels for 22 (6-of-11 3FGs) and Tra Holder pumped in 20 (4-of-6 3FGs).
UNLV tried to counter by going to more man-to-man defense in the second half, but the damage was already done. As Rebels defenders tried to hug ASU shooters beyond the 3-point line, Evans, Graham and Holder started putting the ball on the floor and penetrating, leaving UNLV’s interior defense vulnerable.
That strategy led to foul-prone forward Dwayne Morgan picking up four personals in the first eight minutes of the second half and getting disqualified after logging just 23 minutes on the night (11 points, nine rebounds).
“In the second half we just said we’re going to switch everything and push up on them and ball pressure, and then I think they realized it and started attacking us,” Green said.
Jalen Poyser led UNLV with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and Green contributed 18 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough on a night when Arizona State simply could not miss from long range.
“Obviously, we ran into a buzzsaw,” coach Marvin Menzies said. “We had something to do with it, and they did too. They did a great job shooting the ball. Their first few looks from the 3 were wide open, and they just got hot. They got going from a lot of different positions. We knew they could shoot it from a lot of different positions, but they shot at a real high clip tonight.”
Menzies said the early 3-point barrage was demoralizing for the young Rebels, who gave up their share of open shots, but also defended well on some possessions, only to be rewarded by Graham or Evans or Holder hitting a long triple anyway.
“It paralyzed them a little bit, and that’s what we talked about in the locker room [at halftime],” Menzies said. “You can’t let a score offensively affect how you play. You have to be able to push through to the next possession, and they haven’t really conceptualized the “next possession” mentality yet. But we’ll get them there.”
For the game, UNLV shot just 38.9 percent from the field, and nine first-half turnovers helped contribute to the early deficit.
Sophomore wing Kris Clyburn did not start due to an illness, though he did end up playing 25 minutes off the bench and scoring 12 points. Uche Ofoegbu returned to the lineup after missing Wednesday’s game at Southern Utah with an illness and gave the Rebels six points in 18 minutes.
Freshman center Cheickna Dembele also returned to action after missing three games due to a foot injury. He played five minutes and Menzies said he did not report any setbacks.
UNLV falls to 5-3 with the loss, and the schedule will do the Rebels no favors in the coming weeks. Next up is No. 5 Duke on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, with a date at No. 23 Oregon (technically a neutral-site game in Portland) on Dec. 17 and a home tilt with No. 4 Kansas on Dec. 22 looming.
Menzies is well aware of the gauntlet ahead, but he is still preaching optimism, even after Arizona State’s dismantling of the Rebels.
“I still like this team,” he said. “I still think we have a lot of talent. I do feel like we need to get healthy and I do feel like we need to be more disciplined on the court. Once we get that going, the fans will see a much better brand of basketball. They didn’t see it tonight.”