Live blog: Rebels drop second straight, fall at Utah State

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Jovan Mooring (30) listens to Head Coach Marvin Menzies before making could shots against the Southern Illinois Salukis at the Thomas & Mack Center Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.

Updated Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 | 5 p.m.

Utah State up 12 over UNLV

That's it from the Spectrum, as Utah State used an incredible shooting streak from freshman guard Koby McEwen to put away UNLV, 79-63.

McEwen scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half, making nine of his 10 shots after halftime, including 4-of-4 on 3-pointers.

UNLV had erased several deficits throughout the first 30 minutes, but McEwen's supernova stretch was too much to overcome on a night when the Rebels weren't making shots. UNLV went 0-of-7 from the 3-point line in the second half as Utah State pulled away.

If UNLV is still hanging around in this game, it's by a thread. Utah State has surged to a 69-57 lead with 4:46 left, and freshman guard Koby McEwen has been unstoppable, as he's got 22 points in the second half and 26 for the game.

McEwen scored 16 of Utah State's 18 points over a five-minute stretch to help turn a 48-48 tie into a 66-55 lead. He hit four straight 3-pointers during that stretch, and the Aggies have now hit 12-of-20 from long range.

Christian Jones (17 points) has battled inside to keep hope alive for the Rebels, but unless UNLV has another big run queued up, this one might be out of reach.

Rebels going down to wire at Utah State

For the second time in this game, Zion Morgan has given the Rebels a boost off the bench. The freshman guard has spearheaded a 13-4 run that has UNLV right back in this one, trailing 47-46 with 11:57 remaining.

The Rebels' defense has been exponentially more active than it was against Boise State. While Utah State is shooting 50.0 percent from the field (20-of-40), UNLV's active hands — led primarily by Morgan — has forced 12 turnovers. That has given UNLV a 12-3 advantage in points off turnovers and a chance to steal a win.

Freshman forward Troy Baxter has contributed six points, including a thunderous one-handed dunk and a fast-break layup to key the Rebels' surge.

Utah State guard Sam Merrill continues to be a problem for UNLV, as he's got 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting.

Utah State leads UNLV at half

UNLV's offense went cold in the final minutes of the first half and Utah State closed on a 13-4 run to take a 37-31 lead into the locker room.

Koby McEwen, Julion Pierre and Jalen Moore all hit 3-pointers in the final three minutes, while UNLV made just one of its final eight shots from the field.

Junior guard Jovan Mooring has been the Rebels' most productive player on offense, with three points and six assists in 17 minutes off the bench. Christian Jones has scored eight points on 4-of-8 shooting, and Jalen Poyser chipped in by hitting a pair of 3-pointers.

It looked like Utah State might run away with this one early, but the insertion of freshman guard Zion Morgan turned things around. Morgan's stifling defense at the point of attack gave the Rebels a jolt of energy, and now this looks like anyone's game.

UNLV will have to play better defense in the second half. Utah State shot 53.6 percent over the first 20 minutes (15-of-28), including a 6-of-13 showing from 3-point range. Conversely, the Rebels have made just 37.1 percent (13-of-35), but have stayed in the game by taking care of the ball — UNLV has committed just five turnovers while forcing nine.

Keep an eye on whether Marvin Menzies goes back to a three-guard alignment at some point in the second half, as UNLV played its most effective basketball with Mooring, Morgan and Jalen Poyser on the floor together.

Freshman sparks Rebels to 24-21 lead

Oh hey, Zion Morgan.

The seldom-used freshman guard has turned things around for the Rebels in the first half, and UNLV has come back to take a 24-21 lead with 7:29 remaining before halftime. Morgan played just four minutes and only scored two points, but he also recorded two steals and dished out a nice assist, and UNLV outscored Utah State by seven points while he was in the game.

Back-to-back open-court layups from Uche Ofoegbu and Kris Clyburn forced Utah State to call timeout with UNLV on a 12-1 run.

Rebels staying afloat early at Utah State

UNLV hasn't gotten over its penchant for slow starts, as the Rebels found themselves trailing 16-8 just a few minutes into this one, but the good news is that Marvin Menzies has been able to stabilize things a bit. With 11:44 left in the first half, Utah State has a 20-12 lead.

Zion Morgan has given the Rebels a defensive spark off the bench, forcing a pair of turnovers with strong man-to-man defense, but containing dribble penetration has been a big problem again. Sam Merrill has seven points to lead Utah State, while star wing Jalen Moore has five.

Slow-starting Rebels in need of spark at Utah State

The last time we saw UNLV, the Rebels were getting blown out on their home floor by Boise State, 77-59 on Wednesday. It was a dispiriting defeat, but coach Marvin Menzies has to make sure the effects don’t linger into today’s game at Utah State.

The Rebels (8-8 on the season, 1-2 Mountain West) have shown an ability to shake off tough losses so far this season, but Utah State provides a couple of uncommon challenges, including the venue, as the Spectrum is often cited by coaches as one of the conference’s most difficult places to win.

How can UNLV pull it out? Here are three keys for Saturday’s game:

Get off to a good start

Slow starts have become a bad habit for UNLV, to the point where Menzies may have to start actively looking for ways to give his team a spark in the opening minutes.

How dire has it gotten? In the last five games, the Rebels have trailed by a combined score of 44-22 before making their first substitution. That’s a serious indictment against the starting five and their preparedness to begin games, and it can’t happen on Saturday against Utah State, or the Rebels may get swallowed by the momentum and the crowd.

One option could be inserting junior Jovan Mooring sooner. The reserve guard already enters games quickly, usually subbing in at (or around) the first media timeout, but UNLV plays so much better with him on the court that it’s worth considering getting him in the game at the first sign of trouble. In the Rebels’ blowout loss to Boise State on Wednesday, UNLV was already down by 12 points by the time Mooring checked in (nearly seven minutes into the game). In his 26 minutes from that point on, UNLV actually played BSU to a draw, 44-44.

For the season, UNLV’s preferred starting lineup of Jalen Poyser, Uche Ofoegbu, Kris Clyburn, Tyrell Green and Christian Jones has played 58 minutes together; during that span, the Rebels have been outscored by 30 points, 124-94. Look for Mooring to get the call early.

Defend with intensity

It sounds weird to say, but UNLV actually got a bit lucky against Boise State. The Broncos made just 8-of-24 from 3-point range on Wednesday, but considering how many wide-open looks they got, the damage could have been much worse.

If the Rebels don’t tighten up their 3-point defense against Utah State, they are likely to get burned. USU attempts about as many 3’s as (Boise 21.3 per game), and the Aggies make them at a substantially higher rate (35.7 percent). Utah State’s three most dangerous shooters — Jalen Moore, Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill — are all making better than 41 percent of their triples, so UNLV’s perimeter defense will be under constant pressure.

After the loss to Boise State, Marvin Menzies said he was disappointed in his team’s communication when it came to defending outside shooters. Unless the Rebels clean it up, Utah State will make them pay.

Play the game, not the score

If UNLV does find itself on the short end of the score at some point against Utah State, the Rebels have to show more competitiveness than they did against Boise State.

Tyrell Green said he thought some players let the lopsided score discourage their efforts, and he noted that it was unacceptable. He’s right on both counts. There are no juggernauts in the Mountain West, and every team in the league will probably give you an opportunity to get back in the game, no matter how insurmountable the deficit may seem. But that's a moot point if the trailing team gives up when the score starts to spiral out of control.

It comes down to mental toughness. Tough players will keep grinding, even down 20 in the second half, in hopes of making a run. The Rebels gave up too easily on Wednesday, and they’ll never win on the road without more resolve — especially in a tough place to play like Utah State.

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeGrimala

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