Thursday, March 10, 2016 | 8:03 p.m.
The UNLV basketball team’s season is over. The Rebels are missing the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season, falling 95-82 to Fresno State in the Mountain West quarterfinals.
Here are some observations from the game.
How the game was lost: The Rebels allowed Fresno State to score on its initial seven possessions to build a 17-10 lead less than four minutes into the game. You could argue UNLV wasn’t playing any defense. In reality, the Rebels couldn’t play defense. With a rotation of eight players — including two walk-on players — and coming off a triple overtime game less than 24 hours earlier, the game plan included foul management. UNLV players frequently allowed uncontested baskets intentionally to avoid drawing the foul, and getting into a situation like last night where it was one foul away from having to finish the game with four players. Fresno State, as a result, led from start to finish. The fact that UNLV kept the game within striking distance late in the second half is a testament to the players. They fought for each other and never quit. That’s something most, even the program’s harshest critics, can respect.
Todd Simon solid in relief: Simon’s 9-8 record as the interim coach doesn’t reflect the quality of his effort in replacing Dave Rice. He kept the players together through conflict after conflict, and never made these final three months about himself. Numerous times he could have jockeyed for the job full-time, but that would have been a disservice to the players. And that’s not Todd Simon. He’s too classy to get caught up in the drama, which explains why he was picked to lead the program in the interim. The 35-year-old Simon won’t be the next coach, but whoever is should keep him on staff. He’s one of the region’s top recruiters, and as he’s shown since early January, has a bright future.
Zimmerman strong in possible finale: Stephen Zimmerman was this tall, lanky and uncoordinated kid. He preferred to play facing the basket. I was there that night for his first game as a freshman at Bishop Gorman High. He played at the end of a blowout, scoring a few points and not being overwhelmed by the moment. Everyone said he had the potential to be a professional — which, some five years later, is obvious. He’s a skilled big man, and that’s hard to find. He finished with 13 points and six rebounds, including a powerful dunk over a defender and some nifty moves near the basket. He can run the court, shoot and pass. He’s a local who decided to have his college basketball experience at home. While losing in the Mountain West quarterfinals and a season of disappointment isn’t how the high school All-American envisioned the season playing out, he can take satisfaction in the way he finished. He gave UNLV everything he had, returning from a knee injury late in the season when he could have easily sat out. My guess is this is the last we’ve seen of Big Zimm in UNLV scarlet and gray.
Practice players deliver for Rebs: When we were kids growing up in Las Vegas, during those the “Glory Years” of Final Four runs and the national championship, many dreamed about being that player at the end of the Rebels’ bench along for the ride during a great season. We’d contribute as needed and be the best practice player in the nation. That’s Barry Cheaney. Cheaney was called into duty this week because of the player shortage and didn’t disappoint. He played 16 minutes in Thursday’s triple overtime win — more than he had played all season combined. Today, he drained a 3-pointer in nine minutes during the first half and played so hard the players on the UNLV bench and fans in the crowd roared in approval multiple times. On social media former players raved about how he was the best practice player on the roster. He’s set the bar high for future walk-ons.
A look at the stat sheet: Patrick McCaw led UNLV with 28 points, Jerome Seagears had a game-high 11 assists and 17 points, and Ike Nwamu had 12 points. UNLV, surprisingly, only had one player foul out — Zimmerman. Julien Lewis scored 25 points to lead Fresno State.
Up next: Usually, this space is reserved to preview UNLV’s next game. With UNLV missing the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season and not interested in a lower-tier tournament with an interim coach and small roster, that won't happen until next November. Until then, there’s a new coach to hire and roster to makeover. Time will tell how many players or assistant coaches return. Here’s hoping the 2016-17 Rebels resemble this year’s edition in one way — determination. This team never quit.