Wednesday, March 9, 2016 | 8 p.m.
A walk-on who wasn’t even on the team to start the season played career-high minutes to help win a triple-overtime Mountain West Conference tournament thriller, because of course Barry Cheaney did. The 2015-16 UNLV basketball season has been a lot of things but predictable isn’t one, so just when the Rebels looked to be done, a pre-med practice player came in to help bring them back to life.
“It means everything,” Cheaney said of UNLV’s 108-102 triple-overtime victory against Air Force. “One of the best moments of my life.”
No. 7 seed UNLV, which returns for the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Thursday against No. 2 seed Fresno State, entered the game with only six scholarship players available. By the end, the Rebels had three.
Freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. was the first to go down, fouling out with 8:46 remaining after registering just two points and two rebounds. Then freshman Jalen Poyser followed two and a half minutes later, bringing freshman walk-on Austin Starr into the game.
Cheaney played briefly earlier in the game, and then with UNLV (18-14, 8-10) down four and 2:46 on the clock he subbed in for Starr. On the first play, the 6-foot-1 Cheaney fronted Air Force’s Frank Toohey (6-7) well enough to help Jerome Seagears snag the steal, and two possessions later he saved a steal from going out of bounds, which set up Pat McCaw’s game-tying shot with 1:30 remaining.
“I really believe Barry sparked that comeback,” said UNLV interim coach Todd Simon. “He got a save, he made an extra pass to the corner, drew a foul on the baseline, fronted the post … turns into a turnover. Those are all Barry things.”
It was obviously more than just Cheaney, and if not for some officiating and their own errors the Rebels could have completed the comeback much sooner.
The game went to its first overtime after Jacob Van successfully attacked the rim twice, which he could do because UNLV missed two free throws in the final 20 seconds. Van, whose 37 points were the third-most in tournament history, kept right on attacking Cheaney to start overtime, but UNLV countered with 3-pointers from Jordan Cornish and Seagears.
The Rebels also got a couple of big free throws from Ike Nwamu, who went 16-of-19 at the line. Nwamu finished the game with a career-high 38 points on 20 shots, and he joined McCaw (27 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, six turnovers) as the only two to play every single minute, although Seagears sat for only one minute.
“I'm a little exhausted right now,” Nwamu said. “You don't think about that while you're playing. At this time of the year it's win or go home.”
UNLV was usually the team with the ball at the end of each period, but after a McCaw turnover, Air Force got its chance in a tie game at the end of the first overtime. Van looked for a pass along the baseline and was thwarted by Seagears, who also drew a foul that looked like it would send him to the free-throw line for a chance to win.
After much deliberation, though, the officiating crew led by Dave Hall determined that Seagears didn’t have possession, so the shove that got Toohey fouled out was a player-control foul that didn’t do anything more than give UNLV an inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds on the clock.
“Yes,” Simon said when asked if he had any reaction to Hall’s explanation of the call. “But probably not the time and place for it.”
Undeterred, UNLV came out firing again in the second overtime, building a six-point lead behind Nwamu and Seagears. With Cheaney holding his own, the four remaining scholarship players tried to continue the mentality that has carried them through the injuries, firing and everything else that has marred this season.
“We were saying just have fun,” said Seagears, who expects to get a cortisone shot in his injured heel before Thursday’s game. “This is all we got, why not go out here and do it and get a win? If it’s going to go to 10 OTs then it’s going to go, but we’re going to be here playing together.”
Air Force (14-18, 5-13) cut into the deficit, and then on a desperation pump-fake and heave, Van drew a fifth foul on Cornish with three seconds on the clock. That call might have upset UNLV’s side more than the end of the first overtime, but after Van calmly hit all three shots the Rebels had no choice but to push forward into a third extra session with two walk-ons in the lineup.
“We had two walk-ons, but that's still part of our team,” said McCaw, who over the past nine games has averaged 41.7 minutes per game. “It's a strong bond that we've had, and that we've grown through the whole season. We've been through so much as a team.”
Nwamu again was the guy to get things started for UNLV in the third overtime, and he finished it, too, punctuating a period in which the Rebels never trailed with a dunk. By the end, five Air Force players fouled out, including three starters, and it was the depleted Rebels who stood as the stronger team.
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich felt UNLV ran up the score in a 100-64 loss at the Mack earlier this season, so when the Falcons won the rematch at Clune Arena, Pilipovich talked a lot about his team having more heart than UNLV. After this one, Simon felt his squad answered any of those questions.
“Anytime, you know, you're challenged in that way, for whatever reason, the best way is take the high road and let your play be an example of it,” Simon said. “And I don't think what's happened since and the resolve of this group and guys playing 55 minutes and doing things that they did tonight, I don't think anyone could possibly challenge their heart and toughness in any way, shape or form.”
That includes Cheaney, who in a very real way has been waiting five years for this day. A Southern California native, Cheaney played at Los Osos High with former New Mexico star Kendall Williams, who went 10-1 in this tournament and was actually in the building for his former teammate’s career night.
“I’m not surprised he did well,” Williams said. “… It’s a testament to not only his work ethic but his character. It’s good to see that rewarded, especially in a game of this magnitude.”
Cheaney’s final line wasn’t anything amazing: two points on 2-of-4 free throws, two rebounds, one assist and one steal in 19 minutes, which is two more than he had played all season and four more than he played the 2012-13 season. But it was more than Cheaney ever hoped for when he returned to the team in November after stepping away to focus on academics following four seasons on the scout team.
His defense was the biggest contribution, constantly bouncing in and out to clog the lane while rushing to challenge shooters. The short-handed Rebels needed dozens of little plays to complete an eight-point comeback and survive another day, and the fifth-year walk-on was there to make a few right alongside McCaw, Nwamu, Seagears and Cornish.
“As many great individual efforts as we had, you’re just so happy for Doc Cheaney to come in there and do what we did,” Simon said.
The moment was everything Cheaney dreamed it could be. But how did the future doctor assess his actual performance?
“I think I did pretty well,” Cheaney said. “Always could knock down a couple more free throws.”