Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016 | 9:27 p.m.
One freshman returned and another one continued to play the best basketball of his season, but it wasn’t just the young guys making an impact for UNLV on Senior Night. In their regular-season home finale, seniors Jerome Seagears and Ike Nwamu each scored 18 points to help the Rebels hold off Wyoming for a 79-74 victory Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It was definitely one to remember,” said Seagears, who is 14-of-24 on 3-point attempts over the past three games.
Seagears got things started with his own 9-0 scoring run, but once again UNLV’s most consistent player was freshman Derrick Jones Jr., who finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and four steals. Over his past three games, Jones has 62 points, 24 rebounds, eight blocks and seven steals while shooting 19-of-27 from the field and 24-of-28 at the free-throw line.
“He continues to evolve. The improvement of Derrick from Day One to now is just astronomical,” said UNLV interim coach Todd Simon. “To his credit, he’s been a sponge; he loves to learn. … His upside is through the roof.”
Jones has had to learn four positions this season. Thankfully for UNLV, he didn’t have to play center in this one because Stephen Zimmerman Jr. was in the lineup for the first time since he suffered a knee sprain Feb. 6 at Fresno State.
Zimmerman practiced the past two days — which is more than Seagears (heel), who has been held out of practice for a week — and looked well-rested, grabbing 10 rebounds by halftime and finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 36 minutes.
“Sitting out was really killing me and I know my team wanted me back, so I was just really happy to be out there and try to give it all the energy I had,” Zimmerman said.
The Rebels needed those contributions from everybody, because on the other side was the Josh Adams Show, and it’s quite something. Adams, who might win the Mountain West Player of the Year award despite Wyoming finishing in the bottom four, had 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting, including 7-of-14 beyond the arc, with five assists, five rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
After helping to contain Adams to 3-of-14 shooting in the first meeting, UNLV’s Pat McCaw was once again tasked with shadowing the bouncy senior. It wasn’t easy and Adams still got his points, but McCaw helped force Adams into four turnovers and despite another rough shooting night — McCaw is 4-of-18 in the past two games — he had nine assists with no turnovers plus six rebounds and three steals.
“We asked him to chase around Adams, which is tremendously difficult,” Simon said, adding, “When shots aren’t falling, he adapts his game.”
UNLV’s lead got as big as 12 and it led for more than 33 and a half minutes, but Wyoming hung close at multiple key times when the Rebels nearly ran away and forced the game to go down the wire. But when Adams fouled out in the final 40 seconds after throwing the ball away, the Cowboys didn’t have much chance for a miracle.
Now the Rebels turn their attention from finishing strong at home, where they went 13-3 this season, to getting rested up for the next time they play a game in this building. When the league schedule was released, UNLV didn’t like having a week off at the end of the regular season, but that view has changed.
“Having it now absolutely couldn’t be a better time,” Simon said, adding, “They’ve been playing just a tremendous amount of minutes, and the toll that takes on you mentally and physically … hopefully these couple of days will refresh them and give us a punch down the home stretch.”
Seagears is likely to sit out much of this week’s practice heading into Saturday’s trip to San Diego State, and it’s a few more days without a game for sophomore forward Dwayne Morgan to heal up from a separated shoulder. The Rebels are hoping he can return either Saturday or for next Wednesday’s opening round tournament game where, most likely, the Rebels will be the No. 6 or No. 7 seed and play either San Jose State or Air Force.
No team in the Mountain West has gone from the opening round to the title game — the top-seeded teams get early-round byes — and no UNLV team has won the tournament at the Mack since 2008. Former coach Dave Rice, who was in attendance Saturday to support the seniors he brought to the program, made it to the finals once, and getting to that point is one of many goals still out there for a team that’s getting healthy and, with reason, doesn’t fear the rest of this league.
“We know we’re capable of beating anybody; we’ve just got to take the right approach and get mentally ready,” Seagears said.