Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 | 11:41 p.m.
In one beautifully perfect shot, Pat McCaw sent the Thomas & Mack Center crowd into hysterics and helped UNLV secure a memorable victory in a season that hasn’t had many. The plays that got the Rebels to that point, though, were more of the hard-hat-and-lunch-pail variety, and they came at various points from each of the six scholarship players UNLV had available.
Yes, for the second consecutive season UNLV entered a game with only six healthy scholarship players. Last year it was the regular-season finale at San Jose State, and today the Rebels learned they would be that shorthanded again after sophomore Dwayne Morgan injured his right shoulder at the morning shootaround.
Because of knee injuries to junior Ben Carter (torn ACL) and freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. (sprain), the Rebels were already undersized. In that regard, Morgan’s absence didn’t hand UNLV anything it hadn't dealt with before, and in fact it might have galvanized the team as it overcame a seven-point deficit with five minutes remaining to top UNR 102-91 in overtime.
“It just shows the character of this group over and over and over as they continue to answer the bell as these things … arise,” said UNLV interim coach Todd Simon, who took a gander at UNLV’s football roster to see if there were any big bodies the Rebels could use in a pinch.
Even as the Mountain West losses piled up, the Rebels (16-12, 7-8) showed an ability to fight to the end. Too often, though, that came only after long stretches of listless or disorganized play.
This game wasn’t a thing of beauty — UNR (16-10, 8-6) shot 33.8 percent and the teams combined for 68 free throws — but it was exciting almost from the tip as the lead changed 18 times and the score was tied 15 times, including at the end of regulation. That was when McCaw, who finished with 25 points, 18 rebounds and five assists in 45 minutes, trumped UNR’s Marqueze Coleman in a battle of big shots.
It was Coleman who hit a jumper over McCaw in the final seconds at the Mack last season to help UNR get the victory, one of four wins the Wolf Pack had secured in the past six meetings. Coleman also had 21 points in UNR’s win this season in Reno, and he nearly added to that highlight reel with a long 3-pointer to give his team an 80-77 lead with 2.4 seconds remaining.
UNLV sophomore Jordan Cornish, who along with McCaw and Coleman played the entire game, inbounded the ball to McCaw. UNR’s defense wasn’t really set and McCaw found some room in the middle of the court for two dribbles and a final heave that left his fingers with 0.1 second remaining.
What did McCaw think was going to happen?
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind; I knew it was going in before it left my hands,” said McCaw, who also sent UNLV to overtime last year with a buzzer-beater against Utah State.
When the extra session started it was already over as the Rebels jumped all over the Wolf Pack with a 9-2 run and cruised to an 11-point victory. The celebration was punctuated with senior Ike Nwamu’s pass somewhere near the backboard that freshman Derrick Jones Jr. corralled for an emphatic finish to add to his highlight reel.
“Oh, for sure,” Nwamu said when asked if he thought the high alley-oop would be finished. “It’s Derrick Jones.”
While a typical Jones dunk is nice, Jones was integral in getting UNLV to that point by doing something he hasn’t done much: taking a charge. Drawing whistles for charges is something the Rebels have gone out of their way to practice recently, and with 2:17 remaining Jones drew a big one on Coleman that gave UNLV the ball to tie the game on the next possession.
“We’ve been working on charges to death,” Simon said. “For him to take one and for Pat to take one in the same game, that’s pretty significant because that hasn’t been their MO up to this point.”
Then there’s a guy like Cornish, who in the midst of an ugly game that included at least three air-balled 3s and five turnovers also made a few key plays that UNLV very much needed. On one possession in the final five minutes, UNR kept moving the ball around to try to feed 6-foot-8 Cameron Oliver, who finished with 14 points and 21 rebounds, and the team couldn’t get it to him because Cornish, listed at 6-foot-6, played so physically that Oliver could never get set.
UNR didn’t score on the play, and a couple of minutes later McCaw’s heroics gave the Rebels the bounce they needed to blast the Wolf Pack out of the building.
“Jordan’s heart is bigger than his body,” Simon said. “People see the missed shots or whatever may be the case, but what Jordan does, and that’s why he was starting at center, is he’s just so freaking tough. He loves those challenges.”
This wasn’t a scenario that anyone on UNLV’s side would choose, but perhaps winning a close game this shorthanded gives the Rebels valuable confidence as they head toward the finish line hoping to earn a top-five seed and the bye that comes with it in the Mountain West tournament. The Rebels are 1½ games back of Boise State, which hosts UNLV on Tuesday and then travels to San Diego State, so a win gives the Rebels a decent chance to get tied in the standings.
Morgan will receive an MRI that will determine his timeline, and Zimmerman’s status is still unclear, so the Rebels could play their remaining games with as many as eight scholarship players or only the six they have now. And if it remains at six, at least the Rebels know what that crew is capable of in a difficult circumstance.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the group,” Simon said. “We have six guys who just keep digging in.”