Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 | 5:44 p.m.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — For the second time in four days, the Rebels played well enough give themselves a chance to win on the road. But after coming up short for the second time in Saturday’s 76-72 loss at San Jose State, they had no one to blame but themselves.
UNLV built a 13-point lead early in the second half, but a brutal 10-minute drought without a field goal allowed San Jose State to surge ahead. By the time the Rebels recovered in the closing minutes, it was too late.
UNLV shot 35.6 percent for the game, and the offensive struggles were made even worse by the Rebels' inability to finish plays at the rim. As a team, the Rebels shot just 8-of-23 on attempts categorized as layups or dunks.
When he was asked about his team’s many missed layups, coach Marvin Menzies let out a pained laugh.
“I wish I knew the answer to that one,” Menzies said. “Very unique set of circumstances where they’re missing that many layups. I can’t tell you I’ve experienced this before. We’ve got to keep trying to figure this thing out.”
Most of the first half was played at a ragged pace, but UNLV gained the upper hand by going on an 11-4 run over the final five minutes to take a 36-27 lead into the locker room. The Rebels pushed the lead to 40-27 in the opening minutes of the second half, but that’s when the offense stalled out.
After Cheickna Dembele scored inside with 15:25 to play to give UNLV a 46-36 lead, the Rebels went more than 10 minutes without making a basket. San Jose State stormed back and took the lead until Tyrell Green put back a Jalen Poyser miss to break the drought and tie the game at 61-61 with 4:22 remaining.
Free throws kept the Rebels afloat during that rocky stretch — particularly Poyser’s seven makes — but missing so many chippies killed momentum and drained the team’s confidence.
The Rebels never regained the lead. Poyser hit two free throws to tie the game at 63-63, but San Jose State forward Ryan Welage hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Spartans back up by three with 2:49 to play.
Then Spartans’ forward Brandon Clarke took over. Point guard Terrell Brown penetrated with under two minutes to play, and Dembele was forced to step up and challenge the shot. Though Brown missed, Clarke was able to slip in behind Dembele for the offensive rebound and an easy put-back to give SJSU a 68-63 lead.
Jovan Mooring hit a pair of free throws to bring UNLV back within three, but Clarke again tipped in an offensive rebound to push the Spartans’ lead back to five. Besides the fact that it was guard Jaycee Hillsman and not Brown doing the penetrating, it was a carbon copy of Clarke's previous tip-in.
“[We’re] just not blocking out,” Menzies said. “In the last two or three minutes of the game, they’ve got a big-time player in Clarke, and he showed why he’s one of the better players, if not the best, in the conference. When they needed him to make plays, he did. He got to the offensive glass and made big shot after big shot. We didn’t have an answer for him. Our young guys just couldn’t play him 1-on-1.”
Clarke finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, all game highs.
Freshman guard Zion Morgan hit a 3-pointer with 1:11 to play to get UNLV within 70-68, but SJSU’s Isaiah Nichols answered with his own triple to make it 73-68 with 48 seconds to play. The Spartans made their free throws from there, and UNLV was sent home with another painful loss.
Morgan, who made his first career start and finished with seven points and three steals in 22 minutes, was left shaking his head over his team’s inability to finish layups.
“I think we’re just thinking too much,” he said. “We’re going up trying to draw fouls instead of just finishing through contact.”
UNLV also went 8-of-18 on layups and dunks against Wyoming on Wednesday, meaning that the Rebels shot a combined 16-of-41 (39.0 percent) on bunnies over the last two games — two road games that UNLV lost by a combined five points.
Menzies said he’ll make finishing around the rim a priority in upcoming practices, though he wasn’t sure about a concrete solution for the Rebels’ peculiar inability to convert layups.
“The first thing I can think of is just having a toughness about you where you say I don’t care who’s around, I’m going to go finish it. How about trying to dunk some of them instead of trying a feathery layup? I’ve got to get some drills where we finish with a little more contact, a little more pads. Some of the things that we normally do in the offseason, I think we’ve got to bring some of those drills in and get them to concentrate through the finish.”
UNLV ended up shooting just 8-of-26 from the field in the second half (30.8 percent). Mooring led the way with 17 points and four assists. Poyser came off the bench for the first time this season, and though his shooting slump continues — he made just 1-of-7 from the floor — he found a way to contribute, driving to the basket aggressively to earn 13 free throws. Poyser made 11 from the stripe and finished with 13 points.
After their second tough road loss in a row, the Rebels are now 10-12 on the season and 3-6 in Mountain West play.
“It’s painful, losing,” Menzies said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep fighting. I liked the energy, I liked the effort. You’re on the road and you’ve got a chance to win the thing in the last three or four minutes and just didn’t execute down the stretch.”