Utah State shoots down UNLV, 79-63

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Eli Lucero / The Herald Journal via AP

UNLV guard Jalen Poyser (5) looks to pass the ball as Utah State forward Jalen Moore, left, forward Quinn Taylor (10) and guard Koby McEwen (1) defend during an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Three days ago, UNLV lost by 18 at home to Boise State. On Saturday, the Rebels lost by almost as big a margin, falling 79-63 at Utah State, but somehow it wasn’t nearly as bad.

Unlike the Boise State blowout, UNLV was in this game until the late stages of the second half, when Utah State freshman Koby McEwen went supernova and scored 16 points in a five-minute span to help the Aggies pull away. Until that point, the Rebels had played an encouraging game, responding to every challenge and countering Utah State runs with spurts of their own, usually sparked by reserve guards Jovan Mooring and Zion Morgan.

But with the score tied, 48-48, midway through the second half, McEwen took over. He made a layup, then buried a 3-pointer to give Utah State a five-point lead. After a Jalen Moore jumper, McEwen hit a pair of free throws, then erupted with three consecutive 3-pointers to push the Aggies’ advantage to 66-55 with 5:51 to play.

UNLV never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.

Mooring said the Rebels were aware that McEwen was going off, but that they stayed in their regular defense instead of tilting coverage to the hot hand.

“We stayed in [our defense] and he made a lot of big shots for them that gave them separation,” Mooring said. “Then once his shots started falling, other guys started chipping in. That makes it hard to find shooters when they all have it falling like that.”

Covering outside shooters was an issue for UNLV all night. After McEwen’s burst, Utah State got additional 3-pointers from Shane Rector, Julion Pearre and Quinn Taylor in a span of 1:59 to finish off the Rebels. Overall, the Aggies connected on an outrageous 13-of-21 from 3-point range (61.9 percent).

“I think probably the last eight, nine minutes, we just had too many miscommunications,” Mooring said. “They made us pay for it. That’s been one of our issues going forward throughout this year, that we have to communicate better on the floor and we’ve got to find shooters…Some guys were running to the wrong spots and just leaving guys wide open. Just a lot of little things that we have to clean up that led to them getting open shots.”

Offensively, Mooring led the charge for UNLV. The junior scored just five points but had another excellent game as a facilitator, finishing with eight assists in 34 minutes.

Morgan was the other standout performer for the Rebels, as the freshman saw a season-high 19 minutes and contributed four points, two assists and two steals. Morgan’s aggressive defense helped dig UNLV out of an early hole in the first half; he checked in with the Rebels facing a 16-8 deficit, and when he exited the game five minutes later, Utah State’s lead was down to a single point, 21-20.

That may not seem like much of a contribution, but considering the way the Rebels wilted at the first sign of adversity against Boise State, their resolve in battling back —even from such a modest deficit — should be taken as a positive sign.

Coach Marvin Menzies acknowledged the loss, but also credited his players for making progress in the mental toughness department.

“Huge difference [from the Boise State game],” Menzies said. “If anybody watched the score and didn’t watch the game, they’re going to say, ‘God, they got beat pretty good.’ But we had the lead in the middle of the second half and I thought our guys were fighting. I thought they were playing hard. We weren’t playing smart, but at least we were playing hard, and that’s where it starts.”

Senior Christian Jones paced UNLV with 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting, while sophomore Jalen Poyser scored nine points. Tyrell Green’s shooting slump continues, as the senior forward went just 1-of-9 from the field and 0-of-5 from 3-point range. Over his last four games, Green is shooting 20.0 percent (10-of-50) and just 9.1 percent from 3-point range (2-of-22).

UNLV is now 8-9 on the season and 1-3 in Mountain West play. The Rebels will be on the road again on Tuesday, when they travel to take on New Mexico.

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeGrimala

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