Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 | 8:56 p.m.
A month ago, these teams were dead even.
On Jan. 21, UNLV and Air Force gamely traded buzzer-beaters at the Thomas & Mack Center, and it took 50 minutes to decide a winner, with the Rebels landing the final haymaker and barely escaping as 87-85 victors in double overtime.
A lot has changed since then. Not the Rebels’ win total — UNLV is still stuck on 10 — but something was clearly different on Wednesday, as Marvin Menzies’ group took on the same Air Force team and got blown out, 81-58.
It was a disheartening display for the Rebels, who seem to be trudging toward the finish line in one of the worst seasons in program history. There were long stretches of disinterested play, and Air Force took full advantage, at one point going on a 22-3 run (which spanned the halftime break) to put the game out of reach.
Menzies was clearly in pain after the game. For a coach who prides himself on getting his teams to play better as the season goes on, it had to be startling to see the Rebels sleepwalk through large portions of their latest loss.
“I’m hoping this was an aberration,” Menzies said. “I’m hoping the way this game ended up is not indicative of the direction we’re going. I’m not going to feed into the negativity, but I do think, obviously, mentally and physically we hit a wall. But we’re going to bounce back. We’re going to do the things we’ve got to do, and we’re going to keep working hard as a staff to figure out how to fix this thing, because that was not who these guys are.”
Things went haywire for UNLV right from the tip. Menzies said one of the keys to the game plan was running Air Force guard Zach Kocur off the 3-point line, but the Rebels allowed him to score AFA’s first nine points — all on 3-pointers — to give the Falcons a 9-0 lead less than four minutes in.
UNLV did mount a modest comeback, even pulling ahead, 21-20, and then again, 24-22, both on Jalen Poyser 3-pointers, but that was the end of anything positive. The Rebels did not score a field goal over the final seven minutes of the first half, and the drought lasted almost four minutes into the second half, allowing Air Force to run away and hide with a commanding double-digit lead.
Poyser had a solid bounce-back game after sitting out Saturday’s contest at San Diego State due to a violation of team rules, as the sophomore guard tallied 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting. But as a team, the Rebels did not offer any resistance in the second half, going on another six-minute field goal drought that allowed AFA to inflate the lead to 24 points.
The lack of intensity had Menzies questioning the team’s will but not his ability to coach or lead.
“Look, there’s a point in the season where you wonder not about the message you’re delivering but maybe the way you’re delivering it,” Menzies said. “I do know basketball and I do know these guys are guys that said yes to UNLV, said yes to being Rebels, and I know they want to be here. And I know they’re hurting from the losing, so we’ve got to find a way to help them through it.”
For the game, UNLV shot just 38 percent and made only 7 of 21 from 3-point range. The Rebels also committed 15 turnovers while recording just 11 assists.
Air Force picked apart UNLV’s zone defense to the tune of 47.4 percent from the field and a staggering 14 of 26 from beyond the arc (53.8 percent). Kocur finished with 16 points, while Hayden Graham led all scorers with 19.
The Rebels will attempt to avoid making it nine straight losses when they host UNR on Saturday, but the Wolf Pack promise to be big favorites, even at the Mack. If UNLV drops that one, it will host Utah State on March 1 to keep the streak from reaching double digits.