Thursday, March 10, 2016 | 11:25 p.m.
When it was over, 13 players and three coaches shuffled up the Thomas & Mack Center tunnel unsure if they would ever trot back down. One of the tunnel walls features a preseason team photo with three people no longer in the program, and as they passed it following Thursday night’s season-ending loss, there was no telling how many more would be added to the list of former Rebels.
UNLV (18-15, 8-10) ran out of gas in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals, falling 95-82 to No. 2 seed Fresno State (23-9, 13-5). It’s the second straight year that the Rebels finished 18-15 with a quarterfinal loss as the No. 7 seed, and just like last year they enter the offseason with an uncertain coaching future.
Last year, UNLV nearly moved on from coach Dave Rice before giving him another season that actually turned into only 16 games. Despite victories over the eventual Pac-12 and Big Ten regular-season champions, Rice was fired on Jan. 10 after an 0-3 start in Mountain West play.
Top assistant Todd Simon was given the interim job and went 9-8 while dealing with a roster already down Tyrell Green that lost, in order, Ben Carter for the season, Stephen Zimmerman Jr. for five and a half games, Dwayne Morgan for the final six games and Derrick Jones Jr. for the final three. Senior point guard Jerome Seagears also missed a game while dealing with a litany of injuries, and looking back on it Simon said he was proud of what was accomplished despite the adversity.
“I don’t think any staff could have done it any better,” Simon said. “I think this group stayed bought in, and as a coach all you can do is put them in a position to win, get the most out of them, keep them together, keep them believing and they did all of those things. I’m proud of our staff.”
Fresno State made its first seven shots, opening up a lead it would never relinquish. Zimmerman kept the Rebels in it with 13 points in the first seven minutes, but he wouldn’t score the rest of the game, and the big run that UNLV needed just never came.
Five Fresno State players scored in double figures, including 27 from Julien Lewis and 13 from 285-pound Terrell Carter, who pushed around every Rebel defender. Sometimes that was Zimmerman, but because of foul trouble UNLV played five guards, and occasionally Seagears did what he could against Carter despite giving up 100 pounds.
“He did a heck of a job, but you’re talking about unbelievable mismatches,” Simon said.
The Rebels cut the deficit to six with 7:18 remaining, but a little more than a minute later, Jahmel Taylor hit a deep 3-pointer for an 11-point lead and the dagger. Pat McCaw, who played all 55 minutes of Wednesday’s victory against Air Force and averaged 41.7 minutes over the last nine games, air-balled a pair of 3-pointers and senior guard Ike Nwamu added another.
Simon and Nwamu acknowledged the obvious, that UNLV’s fatigue was certainly a factor, but after scoring 28 points in 37 minutes, McCaw wouldn’t go there.
“Nobody was tired. I wasn’t tired, I’m not going to make an excuse and say I was,” McCaw said. “We just came up short today.”
While Simon and Athletics Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy were noncommittal on whether UNLV would pursue a postseason tournament like the Vegas 16, CBI or CIT, there’s really no question that the season is done. Kunzer-Murphy will meet with the team Friday afternoon, and part of that will be meetings with Simon and assistants Stacey Augmon and Ryan Miller to gauge their interest in the full-time position.
“We’ve had some dialogue and the coaches, if they’re interested in it, we’ll have a little bit more serious talks about it,” Kunzer-Murphy said.
Augmon has been publicly campaigning for the job and Simon confirmed during postgame that he wants the opportunity. UNLV has also been conducting a national search over the past two months, but while that process plays out there are also several decisions to be made throughout the roster.
Zimmerman, McCaw and Jones are all potential NBA Draft candidates, and any coaching change also brings with it the possibility of players transferring out of the program. Zimmerman and McCaw each said they would meet with their families in the coming days to weigh options, and McCaw indicated that UNLV’s coaching decision could play a large role for him.
“The coaching staff that recruited me here, even Coach Rice, that’s the only reason I came here,” McCaw said. “That’s a huge deal, so a lot’s going to factor into whether I come back to UNLV or not.”
Asked to describe this season, Seagears first kind of chuckled to himself. Two years ago he transferred in from Rutgers with the plan to sit out a season before leading UNLV to great heights in his final college season.
Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned for anyone on UNLV’s roster. But what they hope to take from it is an inner strength that helped them compete despite many circling distractions.
“You have to be ready to take all the blows and stay strong throughout and just be ready for whatever life hits you in the face with every day,” Seagears said.
After the game in the locker room, Zimmerman said, Simon told the players that he loved them and was proud of them for sticking together and fighting. A season that started with pageantry at a special event downtown and expectations of returning to the top of the league ended just like the one before it: two victories short of a miracle and staring directly into the unknown.
Zimmerman, a projected first-round pick, will certainly have an opportunity to continue at the next level. If this tumultuous, woebegone season is the end of his UNLV career, he insisted he wouldn’t have made any other decision.
“Besides all the injuries and everything that came down on us, it’s been a lot of fun,” Zimmerman said.