Juan Labreche / AP
Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 | 9:35 p.m.
There were multiple options when the play started, but at its most important juncture there was basically just one. It was one interim coach Todd Simon said he was comfortable with, even if fans screaming at their televisions would likely disagree.
“You know, Jerome got a good look at it,” Simon said. “… He’ll make seven out of 10 of those, and we feel good about it.”
With 23.2 seconds remaining and UNLV trailing New Mexico by two, Derrick Jones Jr. inbounded the ball to Jerome Seagears. Simon said he didn’t want a timeout, preferring to go with a play the Rebels were comfortable with in the situation while not giving the Lobos a chance to switch anything defensively.
Freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. had a career-high 21 points and sophomore Jordan Cornish had hit five 3-pointers in the second half, but neither touched the ball on the final possession that meant everything in UNLV’s 87-83 loss to New Mexico at The Pit. Instead it was Seagears, who finished the game 2-of-9 shooting, charging headlong toward the rim and coming up empty.
Jones was an option on a slip screen, but his collision with Cullen Neal left both players standing behind the play at the top of the key. Then there was the hot-shooting Cornish in the near corner, but his defender, Xavier Adams, did what he could to cut off the kick-out.
That left only what happened, a wild Seagears layup into defender Sam Logwood that drew no whistle. As frustrating as that finish was, though, no one could argue that the Rebels (13-10, 4-6) lost here because of their offense.
“We liked what it looked like offensively. Guys executed the packages that we put in, we banged out some 3s and scored enough points to win the game,” said Simon, whose team shot 12-of-26 beyond the arc and had been 10-0 when scoring at least 80 points. “But obviously you can’t give up 28 points at the free-throw line and expect to win, or give up 15 second-chance points as well.”
The Lobos (14-8, 7-2), who are alone in second place, are far and away the Mountain West’s best team at getting to the free-throw line. They executed that aspect to perfection while also taking advantage of a frontcourt that was without Ben Carter and then Dwayne Morgan for most of the game.
Carter is done for the season following a torn ACL he suffered Saturday, and Morgan, who leads the league with more than seven fouls committed per 40 minutes, fouled out of this one with no points and two turnovers in seven minutes.
“It’s definitely frustrating, especially for Dwayne, because he fouls a lot,” said Zimmerman, who shot 9-of-15 with nine rebounds and five blocks in 38 minutes.
UNLV’s offense worked about as well as it could have. Zimmerman consistently beat the Lobos one-on-one, and then when they doubled he helped to find outside shooters, including Cornish, who enjoyed some back-and-forth with the front-row New Mexico fans after each of his five 3-pointers.
“They were just talking all type of noise. It’s fun,” said Cornish, who had a season-high 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. “Just like to have fun; this is a great atmosphere, a great place to play.”
Simon might disagree. While New Mexico kept its second-half offense afloat with free throws the Rebels attempted only two in the second half. The final tally was 13-of-16 for UNLV and 28-of-36 for the home team, which is in line with some of the Rebels’ recent trips here (2015: UNLV 12-15, New Mexico 21-29; 2013: UNLV 4-5, New Mexico 15-29).
“There’s no secret. You have to be 20 points better to maybe win by two here,” Simon said. “It’s a difficult place to play.”
It also would have helped if the Rebels had any kind of answer for New Mexico’s Tim Williams. While Elijah Brown led the Lobos through the first half and finished with 26 points, Williams went to another level in the final seven minutes, scoring 12 straight by consistently beating Zimmerman off the dribble.
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“I think he willed us to win,” New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. “I’ve got to give Cullen and Elijah credit because they were getting blitzed. Cullen just said to get Williams the ball and as it turns out they just couldn’t stay in front of him.”
That matchup, more than anything else, highlighted Carter’s absence for UNLV. In the teams’ last meeting, Brown went off but Carter helped frustrate Williams and keep him in check. Tonight, Williams scored a season-high 29.
“I don’t think we took any charges and that’s one thing everybody loves Ben for,” Zimmerman said. “We definitely missed him this game.”
Zimmerman was one of five Rebels with at least four fouls, which certainly impacted how he defended Williams down the stretch. But it’s also just a mismatch that UNLV had to live with, because Carter isn’t walking through that door and Morgan, and to a lesser extent Jones, hasn’t shown the ability to stay on the court without fouling.
The Rebels used an eight-man rotation tonight — Tyrell Green dressed only as an emergency option and Daquan Cook didn’t make the trip, though he’s still on the team — and Morgan’s actions whittled that down to seven. They will get no sympathy, though, and small-ball defense is something they’re going to have to learn on the fly.
The effort was there, as was the execution at one end other than what Cornish called a few offensive “brain farts” down the stretch. Now the Rebels have to hope that this depleted roster can figure out how it best fits together before what looks like another lost season gets too far away from them.