Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016 | 11 p.m.
No one is going to fondly recall this game and tell their children they were there. There weren’t many who stuck around for the whole thing to even pass on the tale, but those who did at least got the result they wanted.
“I guess a win’s a win,” said UNLV interim coach Todd Simon. “It was not exactly pretty.”
The Rebels were 15-point favorites against San Jose State despite entering the game with about six and a half healthy scholarship players. After one of the worst halves in recent memory, UNLV (14-11, 5-7) fought back and held on at the Thomas & Mack Center for a 64-61 victory against the Spartans (8-16, 3-9), who not long ago went more than a calendar year without a Division I victory.
Here’s how ugly the Rebels’ first half was: UNLV shot 30 percent from the field — 3-of-13 from 3-point range — plus 3-for-8 at the free-throw line, including a couple of misses on the front end of one-and-ones, and it missed nine shots at the rim. The Rebels had more turnovers (5-3), fewer rebounds (19-27) and trailed by 13 to a team that hadn’t won a road Division I game in nearly two years.
The announced crowd of 11,647 wasn’t anywhere near accurate, yet the small crowd was even dwindling prior to the break as many folks quickly decided that they had seen enough. Those who stuck around would be rewarded … eventually.
“We want to bury that first half in the backyard and not bring that back up if we don’t have to,” said Simon, who added that the halftime message was about 10 percent instruction and 90 percent motivation that would peel paint from the walls.
UNLV didn’t get any better at the rim, missing about 15 layups or tip-ins in the second half, but nearly everything else was improved. Including the offense that led to all of those close shots, even if one of the program’s worst shooting nights in the last five years (29.4 percent) didn’t allow many to find the bottom of the net.
“We knew we weren’t playing well in the first half, but basketball is a game of runs and it was just getting into our run in the second half,” said senior Jerome Seagears, who had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists with no turnovers.
Seagears, who’s dealing with a bone bruise in his shooting hand, had several of those close misses at the rim, but he also led UNLV in the final minute and a half with go-ahead free throws and a key layup. Equally important was his work on defense, where Seagears registered six second-half steals that helped UNLV get enough possessions to even have a chance to win.
“He guarded his tail off,” Simon said.
Freshman Derrick Jones Jr. grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds to help UNLV even the battle on the boards, and the Rebels committed only one second-half turnover. The Rebels dominated nearly every facet of the second half and at one point forced five turnovers in barely more than a minute, but their woeful shooting kept things close. Sophomore guard Pat McCaw brought the small but boisterous crowd to its feet on a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5:38 left — UNLV’s first lead since 6-3 — and about a minute later San Jose State was back on top.
UNLV hadn’t won a game like this in a long time. Going back to last season, the Rebels were 2-16 (0-6 this year) in Mountain West games that were within five points at the five-minute mark. Saturday’s double-overtime loss at Fresno State was just the latest example of fighting all the way back only to find ways to lose, yet this time the Rebels were finally able to pull it off.
“Playing for one another,” Seagears said when asked to explain the key. “We’ve just got to find a way to get through these games and stick with it.”
UNLV started the game in a zone defense that they turned to when freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. went down against Fresno State, but that was gone by the first media timeout.
“I didn’t like the energy in it,” Simon said.
Instead the Rebels eventually worked into the full-court pressure, trapping style that they want to run when fully healthy. But they’re not healthy and won’t be for the rest of the season, so it’s not something they can run for extended minutes in part because of the inherent foul risk.
The Rebels must pick their spots for the remainder of the season, or at least until (or if?) Zimmerman returns from a knee sprain. In Zimmerman’s place at center, sophomore Dwayne Morgan struggled with four points on 2-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds but Jones picked up a lot of the slack with 14 points to go with his 18 boards in 35 minutes.
It took a little bit of something from everyone who played just to get past the worst team in the league at home. This wasn’t a win to revel in, but after fighting hard and coming up short in so many close games, any kind of victory is at least a positive step as the Rebels continue to prove they will fight until the end.
“They still believe,” Simon said.