Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 | 10:58 p.m.
Nine Rebels played in the first half of the team's biggest Mountain West blowout in at least a decade, and only one didn’t score. That one, sophomore Jordan Cornish, was playing some point guard for the first time since high school, and in a week that could define this season if not the program for the near future, the move worked perfectly.
“He comes in and all of a sudden he’s John Stockton so hey, pretty happy with him,” said interim coach Todd Simon, who through two games can do no wrong.
Cornish tied his career high with six assists (with no turnovers) in the opening 20 minutes, and no one needed even that much time to see where Saturday night's game against Air Force was headed. UNLV (11-7, 2-3) dominated from the start and capped a tumultuous week that included Dave Rice’s firing with a 100-64 beatdown against the Falcons (10-8, 1-4).
At 52-20, the Rebels’ rebounding advantage was something out of a video game, even if many of those were cleanups on their own misses. UNLV shot 50 percent from the field, 52 percent beyond the arc and 95 percent at the free-throw line while never giving Air Force a real chance to get into the half-court offense it needed to try to keep this game within reach.
“When you focus on all these small things that aren’t necessarily small and you start putting them together, you start getting results like that,” Simon said. “… Those things don’t happen just one-on-one or that kind of basketball. It happens because you take care of the ball and you get enough possessions. It happens because you get up and pressure defensively on every single possession. It’s just got to be who our DNA is.”
To many of the players, this transformation from the team that lost six out of eight to the one fans are starting to fall in love with again feels rather simple. The Rebels are running around the way they practiced this offseason, the way they have wanted to play and the way they were told they would play when Rice, Simon and assistant coach Ryan Miller sold them on putting the runnin’ back in Runnin’ Rebels.
“I think when you see your leader uptight, knowing that his job can basically be taken from him, his team feels the same way,” said Cornish, who finished with eight points, three rebounds and three turnovers with his six assists. “We know we have pressure to win, pressure to win for him because we don’t want to let him down, so now that weight’s lifted off our shoulders and we’re just free.”
Free to throw a perfectly executed alley-oop to freshman Derrick Jones Jr. on an out-of-timeout play that set Twitter ablaze in the first half. It’s not that UNLV hasn’t played this way this season, but it has been a while since it has had 10-minute stretches as impressive as most of the past 80.
“We just did what we had to do,” said Jones, who led the team with 22 points and 10 rebounds for his second career double-double.
It’s only two games and Saturday's was against one of the two worst teams in the league, but it’s hard to not be impressed with what the players and Simon are getting out of each other. Senior guard Jerome Seagears hadn’t made a 3-pointer since December before drilling all five of his attempts against the Falcons, finishing with 17 points on seven shots.
“It doesn’t get any more efficient,” Simon said. “… And he doesn’t get enough credit for how hard he guards at 94 feet.”
You can look all around the court and find examples like that, whether it’s Cornish at point guard, Seagears and Pat McCaw finding the rhythm that helped them shine at times this season or Stephen Zimmerman Jr. putting in another double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) with aggressive play.
“Everybody knew how Coach felt,” Seagears said. “Now it’s like we hit rock bottom, so it’s only up from there.”
The game was so out of reach that a different sporting event briefly stole the spotlight down the stretch. Until walk-on freshman Austin Starr, a Foothill High grad, drained a 3-pointer for the century mark, perhaps the biggest cheers of the second half were from the ring of suites where fans erupted over the crazy finish to the Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals divisional playoff game.
That’s OK with the Rebels, because far too often in recent years potential blowouts have turned into nail-biters. They know tougher tests await, starting with next week’s road trips to Utah State on Tuesday and UNR on Saturday, and they’re confident they can continue on this trend on the road, because after a week when every move netted positive results, how could they not be?
“We still think we can win the league,” Cornish said, “point-blank period.”