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UNLV basketball:

Rebels sink even lower with flat 59-57 loss at Wyoming

Coach Dave Rice’s job status is unclear following an 0-3 start to Mountain West play

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV head coach Dave Rice looks to the heavens after more sloppy play during a basketball game against Whittier on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The final real shot of this loss, UNLV’s third straight and fifth in the last six games, was an off-the-dribble heave from a guy who hadn’t made a shot in the game and missed nine of his previous 10 3-point attempts. UNLV’s top 3-point shooter, Jalen Poyser, had a nice view of Jerome Seagears’ miss from the bench, and that served as the latest of many what-ifs in a coaching tenure that could very rapidly be coming to an end following a game the Rebels once led by 17.

What happens to fifth-year UNLV coach Dave Rice from here will be up to some combination of UNLV President Len Jessup, Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the Board of Regents, who sign the checks, and the Rebels’ big boosters. Over four-plus seasons, Rice is 98-54 overall and 37-32 in Mountain West play, and since signing a two-year extension following a flirtation with South Florida, Rice is 27-22 and 8-13.

“I fully expect to be coach and to get the team ready,” Rice said about his job status.

It remains to be seen if Saturday night's 59-57 loss at Wyoming will be the final straw. If it is, the decision will likely be because this one was like so many before it.

During this three-game losing streak, the Rebels have averaged 19 turnovers per game and been outscored on points off turnovers 72-25. It was also Seagears getting the last meaningful shot against Fresno State, although Rice viewed the bigger problem as possessions wasted with turnovers and at the free-throw line, where UNLV didn’t crack 60 percent over the past two games.

“Same thing it’s been, missed free throws and turnovers,” Rice said. “… I’m very dejected. We’re prepared, we’ve practiced hard the last two days.”

No matter what positives are taking place in practice, they’re not translating to the court, at least not at nearly enough of a rate to make a difference. Look at the standings for what is likely the worst season in Mountain West history, and only San Jose State is keeping UNLV out of last place.

“We’re still only three games through this conference season but it’s getting late, obviously,” Rice said.

Combine this conference start with the no-show second half against Arizona State in a year when the pressure was already turned up and it’s easy to see where the heat is coming from. Rice said he hasn’t had any recent conversations with Kunzer-Murphy about his job status and added that he fully expected to be UNLV’s coach for Tuesday’s home game against New Mexico.

“Getting our team home, practicing tomorrow, practicing Monday and getting ready for Tuesday’s game against New Mexico. That’s my whole focus,” Rice said.

When reached for comment, Kunzer-Murphy said she couldn’t talk on the subject tonight but offered the following statement: “I feel the disappointment that the fans feel right now and I’m sure the coaches and players feel the same way. The conference schedule has not gotten off to a good start and it needs to get turned around.”

Coaches could again be heard screaming from outside the locker room, just as they had a little more than an hour down the road in Fort Collins after Wednesday’s loss to Colorado State. Senior guard Ike Nwamu, who had 10 points and provided a little spark in the second half, said the message was a familiar one.

“The main thing was really just to stay together,” Nwamu said. “Don’t listen to outside noise and stay together, everything will take care of itself if we’re doing that and we’re doing the right things.”

Nwamu added that the players don’t talk at all about Rice’s coaching status. Meanwhile, that’s all most fans have been able to discuss for several weeks now.

Even when UNLV does some things right — the Rebels won the rebounding battle for the fourth straight game and held the league’s leading scorer, Wyoming senior Josh Adams, to 12 points on 14 shots — it’s often not enough. Wyoming shot 2-of-17 with six turnovers during the first 14 minutes, but because UNLV’s 22-5 lead was mostly built on mediocre and bad jump shots falling, it didn’t take long for that deficit to disappear as the Cowboys nearly tied the game by halftime.

Poyser was 1-of-4 with three turnovers, which probably played a role in his benching for the final 4:49, while another freshman, Stephen Zimmerman Jr., was the focal point of the offense down the stretch. UNLV kept feeding its big man, but whether it was a few close misses or one of Zimmerman’s five turnovers, the Rebels kept coming up empty.

During these last three games, the only offense UNLV has really been able to sustain was at the free-throw line against Fresno State, and even that disappeared when it mattered most. The Rebels are 9-1 when they score at least 71 points and 1-6 when they don’t, making their offense a major concern for the second straight year .

“The only thing that matters is how we play on Tuesday,” Rice said. “That’s what matters, and then once we get through Tuesday, Saturday and then the next game and the next game.”

That’s a question of if, not when. Because the problems simply aren’t getting fixed, and whether Rice gets the opportunity to keep working toward a solution isn’t really up to him anymore.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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