Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016 | 11:28 p.m.
Blue and silver streamers erupted from all four corners of the Lawlor Events Center, a new UNR tradition that celebrated something Saturday night that has become rather common.
UNLV (12-8, 3-4) squandered a second-half lead in painfully familiar fashion, clanking half of its free-throw attempts and committing 17 turnovers on the way to a 65-63 loss against its in-state foe. UNR (12-7, 4-3) has now won four of the past six meetings, and the Wolf Pack stood on the court reveling in the victory in front of its boisterous student section after handing UNLV interim coach Todd Simon his first defeat.
“Marqueze Coleman said they don’t like us and they pretty much feel like there is no rivalry,” said Tyron Criswell, referring to his teammates’ comments last season. “Obviously in the last six games, we’ve won four of them. Obviously it is a rivalry.”
Coleman led all scorers with 21 points, and he alone outscored the Rebels on free throws. The senior guard was an ugly 3-for-15 from the field, but he made his mark with a 15-of-20 effort at the free-throw line, almost all of them in the second half.
While Coleman and the Wolf Pack used free throws to overcome their 0-for-9 3-point shooting and climb back into the game, UNLV shot terribly at the 3-point line (3-of-19) and the free-throw line (14-of-28) and was outscored 24-12 on points off turnovers.
With 10:32 remaining, UNLV drew a fourth foul on UNR’s lone big man, Cameron Oliver, and took a nine-point lead in the process. At that point the Rebels looked like they might be able to finish the game the same way they had during the preceding three-game winning streak.
Instead it looked a lot like the finishes that sunk UNLV to 0-3 in league play and finished coach Dave Rice’s career here.
“We lost that game (in) that middle 10 minutes of the second half when we just gave away too many possessions,” Simon said.
Put more succinctly: “We beat ourselves,” said senior guard Jerome Seagears, who had four points, two assists and no turnovers.
Oliver, who had 12 points, nine rebounds and four turnovers, re-entered the game with 6:37 remaining and was rarely challenged one on one. UNR tried to prevent that situation by using him to front with help over the top, and UNLV freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. was called for an offensive foul on another possession, something Simon thought made him more tentative.
“It was a war zone down there,” Simon said. “It was difficult to get it in where we wanted to, but we’ve got to be tougher and execute that sort of thing.”
It also didn't help that freshman Derrick Jones Jr.'s quick start to the second half was tripped up when he fell over referee Deron White. Jones returned to the game but wasn't 100 percent after twisting his ankle, and for the second time this season no Rebel scored in double digits as the team shot 47.9 percent from the field.
Zimmerman really struggled down the stretch, shooting 1-of-6 at the free-throw line and committing five turnovers. Those plays ended up overshadowing his 10 defensive rebounds and three blocks, and at the very end Zimmerman watched a lot of the action from the bench as Simon tried to play offense for defense.
That backfired a bit when sophomore Dwayne Morgan, who has rarely played in crunch time this season, committed an unnecessary foul in a tied game with about a minute left. That allowed UNR to take the lead for good, but it was only one of many mental errors that led to UNLV’s collapse.
The Wolf Pack took its first lead of the second half when D.J. Fenner capitalized on a questionable foul call by draining all three free throws, then picked Pat McCaw’s pocket and sent the fifth-largest Lawlor crowd in history (11,341) into hysterics with an emphatic dunk.
“I thought our guys played as hard as they could play,” said first-year UNR coach Eric Musselman. “That’s what we talked about. We told them, ‘Don’t come back in this locker room and feel that you left something out there.’”
Musselman had a giant smile amid his players as they sang the fight song among screaming cheerleaders. One of many things Musselman has tried to implement is a home environment fun enough to bring people out — a pregame routine and streamers after victories are among the new features — and wins like this in front of a packed house will only help.
“It gives you goosebumps, and the enthusiasm among the student body was off the chart. They were humongous for us,” Musselman said. “You could tell we had an extra step even at the 6 o’clock mark when we went to warmup.”
As much as the Rebels have themselves to blame for another close Mountain West loss, UNR stepped up and made the plays that UNLV didn’t. After settling for a lot of jump shots in the first half, the Wolf Pack went small and started attacking the rim over and over.
“We just wanted to keep going at (Zimmerman),” Coleman said. “We’re a tough-minded group.”
It’s back to reality for Simon and the Rebels, who have league leaders San Diego State and Boise State coming to town this week. In three conference victories the average margin was 20 points and in four losses it has been two, each defeat featuring a dozen ways it could have been different if only UNLV had stepped up.
“We’ve got to put the time in,” Simon said. “When you go backwards a little bit in a lot of areas, that’s just what you’ve got to do.”