Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 | 4:35 p.m.
The margin of error in the Mountain West is thin for every team, but UNLV in particular lives on the razor’s edge. The slightest mistakes can be the difference between winning and losing, and the Rebels learned that lesson again — for the seventh straight time — in Sunday’s 77-64 loss at San Diego State.
UNLV failed to mark SDSU sharpshooter Matt Shrigley early on, allowing the senior specialist to make four first-half 3-pointers, and that was enough to put this one in the loss column. Though the Rebels showed some heart with a late rally, they could never overcome the early miscues that allowed Shrigley to put them in a 17-point hole.
Coach Marvin Menzies said running Shrigley off the 3-point line was emphasized in the pregame scouting report, as 34 of his 37 field goals on the season coming into the game were 3-pointers, but the Rebels clearly didn’t execute the plan. Shrigley nailed four 3-pointers in the first half (4-for-7 shooting), and San Diego State built a 41-26 lead heading into halftime.
Jovan Mooring got hot in the second half, scoring 22 points in the final 20 minutes, but the game was too far out of reach by then.
Now the Rebels have lost seven games in a row — their last victory was on Jan. 21 against Air Force, so UNLV will go at least a full month between wins — and once again it was the little things that proved the difference.
“I think in the first half we lost their shooter too many times, and he made some shots that killed us,” Mooring said. “That was pretty much the deciding factor in the game.”
Mooring did his best to bring UNLV back. He hit 6 of 9 shots over the final 20 minutes, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range, and at one point he scored 9 consecutive points for the Rebels to keep them within striking distance. He drained a long 3-pointer, bringing the score to 66-60 with 4:45 to play, but San Diego State answered with a 9-0 run of its own to put the contest out of reach.
Mooring finished with 26 points and five assists in 39 minutes.
UNLV had chances down the stretch. Trailing by 9 points with 5:45 to play, Mooring found Tyrell Green for an open 3 at the top of the key, but Green was unable to draw iron on the shot. After Mooring scored a 3 and brought UNLV within 6 points with 4:45 to play, Kris Clyburn had a chance to cut the deficit in half with a 3 from the left wing but missed.
Clyburn missed another open 3-pointer a minute later with UNLV trailing 68-60, and San Diego State scored the next 7 points to finish off the Rebels.
For the game, Mooring went 4 for 6 from long range; the rest of the team combined to go 4 for 12.
“Jovan Mooring was working,” Menzies said. “He did a pretty good job of being a little more aggressive (in the second half) … but unfortunately it’s not golf or tennis — you’ve got to get some other guys to contribute.”
While UNLV was relying on Mooring’s long bombs to keep the game close in the second half, San Diego State was content to pound the ball inside and attack the rim. The Aztecs finished with a 38-20 advantage on points in the paint, and they converted on 11 of 12 shots around the basket.
Forward Malik Pope was a matchup problem, as he posted up a bunch of UNLV defenders and scored an easy 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Guard Jeremy Hemsley also had success driving into the paint, finishing with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
San Diego State shot 50.9 percent for the game, while UNLV hit at a 41.7 percent clip.
After the game, in the face of yet another defeat — UNLV is now 10-17, setting a new school record for most losses in a season — Mooring tried to focus on the positives, stressing the fact that he still believes the Rebels can compete in the Mountain West, as long as they can stop making costly mistakes.
“Clearly we can play with anyone,” Mooring said. “There’s just too many mishaps on the court that we need to clean up. We’ll fight back and then lose a shooter and they’ll hit a dagger 3, or we’ll miss a rebounding assignment. It’s the small things that are changing momentum for us in the games we’re losing.”
Menzies had a similar message, emphasizing the need for the Rebels to maintain a good mindset as the end of the regular season approaches.
“I think (the players) have been pretty good,” Menzies said. “They’ve remained as positive as they can be. Losing hurts. It doesn’t feel good. It can sap you. But for the most part, they’re bringing it at practice still. The staff has been phenomenal at engaging them off the court to keep them up, keep them positive, (keep them) optimistic about the conference tournament being in Las Vegas. Having the opportunity to compete against anyone at home in the tournament is something we’ve got to lick our chops for and look forward to it and try to do our best job there as well. But we’ve got some games before that. As long as they stay together and stay positive, they’ll have a chance. They’ve got to keep believing. They do now. It’s just they’ve got to put some execution with the belief in order to get the results.”
Sophomore guard Jalen Poyser did not play due to a violation of team rules. Menzies declined to discuss specifics of the violation but said Poyser understood what he did wrong and took his punishment the right way. Poyser was vocal during the game, encouraging his teammates from the bench.
Poyser is UNLV's third-leading scorer on the season at 11.4 points per game. Menzies said he hasn't determined how long the suspension will last but allowed it could just be a one-game punishment. The Rebels play next on Wednesday at Air Force.
The Rebels were again without freshman Troy Baxter, who was inactive Sunday due to a foot injury. After the game, Menzies said the injury could keep him out for "a couple weeks," and with just 13 days remaining in the regular season, that raises the question of whether we'll see Baxter again this season. The 6-foot-8 forward has played in just one of the past six games. He's averaging 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.