Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016 | 8:43 p.m.
The team that trailed by 17 in the second half didn’t win this game, which makes sense. And for some, everything the Rebels did to get from that point of being left on the side of the road to double overtime matters not because the result, a loss, isn’t any different.
UNLV has to hope that this kind of a loss, one that saw the Rebels fight all the way back with basically the same five guys, means something more than if they had rolled over and lost by 20. Because otherwise this 111-104 double-overtime loss at Fresno State (15-8, 6-4) could lead to something even more bleak than what the eighth-place Rebels (13-11, 4-7) already find themselves in.
“I can be proud of that,” said interim coach Todd Simon. “This group, these guys left it all out there, especially the individual efforts, guys playing out of position and doing stuff on the fly.”
A roster that lost two players in the last week — junior forward Ben Carter to a season-ending knee injury, little-used junior guard Daquan Cook to a team dismissal — saw another one go down in the first half. With 8:37 remaining, UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman Jr. and Fresno State’s Terrell Carter were both holding onto the ball after a jump ball was called, and as they started to separate, Zimmerman’s left knee apparently buckled.
Carter’s right leg was wrapped behind Zimmerman’s left as the two separated; there didn’t appear to be any intent to throw down or injure the UNLV freshman.
“A couple guys scrapping for the ball and maybe didn’t get untangled quick enough,” Simon said of the incident.
Zimmerman went to the locker room with what UNLV called a knee sprain — the same initial diagnosis given to Carter, though this injury was clearly not as severe — and then watched the rest of the game from the bench. The Rebels admit to feeling a little snake-bitten when it comes to injuries, but they also know they’re not in a position to look for sympathy.
“We’re facing adversity, but nobody’s feeling sorry for us. It’s really just us against everyone,” said Ike Nwamu, who scored a team-high 27 points. “… The season doesn’t stop because people are getting hurt.”
The Rebels trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, and after a strong start to the second half, Fresno State countered with a flurry of 3-pointers that pushed the margin to 17. That’s when Nwamu, wearing No. 34 for the first time in honor of former Mercer teammate Jibri Bryan, who was slain this week in Georgia, started heating up.
Nwamu hit two of his five 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, and with 9:05 left Simon made his final substitutions of regulation. By the end, Nwamu, Pat McCaw, Jordan Cornish and Dwayne Morgan each played more than 40 minutes, and Derrick Jones Jr. was out with them through the end of regulation until he fouled out in the second overtime.
“We rolled with the group that got us back there,” Simon said.
That group took turns finding the hot hand on offense, and defensively they played a zone defense that forced Fresno State into shots that it hadn’t hit much this season. But tonight, the Bulldogs made them.
In nine previous conference games, Julien Lewis and Cullen Russo had combined to make four 3-pointers. Against UNLV, the duo combined to hit that same mark in only eight attempts, and Lewis hit enough midrange shots to finish with 18 points on 19 shots.
“They had guys make shots who don’t usually make them at that clip,” Simon said. “… We figured at some point the percentages would even out.”
Senior guard Marvelle Harris was his regular, stellar self — 37 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and one turnover — and despite a rough shooting night, senior guard Cezar Guerrero made enough hustle plays to help Fresno State steady itself after the Rebels took a lead twice in the final three minutes of regulation.
Harris tied the game in the final 40 seconds, and UNLV never got off a good shot before the buzzer. Both teams slogged to only four points in the first overtime, a session that included four missed free throws for the Rebels, and the Bulldogs pulled away with relative ease the second time around.
The Rebels will look at the zone defense they used for the final 30-plus minutes and feel optimistic about what a small lineup can accomplish.
“That (zone is) what transformed the game for us,” said McCaw, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds in 42 minutes.
The will look at that and focus on the positives, because it’s better than looking at everything that’s not there, especially if Zimmerman misses any extended time. They will choose to be optimistic about the comeback because other than quitting, which they didn’t do when they were down 17 and don’t intend to start doing now, there’s not much else left.
“We’re certainly starting to run low on options,” Simon said. “We’re going to have to keep reinventing ourselves as we have a number of times this year.”