Saturday, March 4, 2017 | 6:37 p.m.
A lot of things have happened in the 48 years since UNLV’s inaugural basketball season in 1969. A national championship parade. Multiple No. 1 draft picks. Water bombs. Final Four runs. On-court brawls. Scandals. Hall of Fame coaches. UNLV fans who have been paying attention for the past half-century have pretty much lived through everything there is to experience.
But in Saturday’s season finale, the Rebels managed to break new ground and do something — maybe the only thing — no other UNLV team had ever accomplished.
When the final horn sounded on UNLV’s 72-59 loss at Fresno State, the Rebels fell to 11-20 on the season and 4-14 in league play, with the latter record cementing Marvin Menzies’ squad as the 11th-place finisher out of 11 teams in Mountain West.
In other words, last place. For the first time in program history.
The final, cellar-clinching loss unfolded like most of the others before it. The Rebels shot 26.7 percent in an ice-cold first half, allowing Fresno State to take a 35-24 lead at the break, and the final 20 minutes turned into a desperation scramble to keep the Bulldogs from running away with it.
A second-half drought in which the Rebels went 5:27 without a field goal proved especially harmful, as Fresno State went on an 11-2 run during that span to push its lead to 54-33 with 9:35 to play.
UNLV played hard to the end and cut the deficit to 11 points on a few occasions, and the Rebels even got it as low as nine points with 2:00 remaining, but the outcome was never in doubt. Burly Fresno State big man Terrell Carter was unstoppable in the post, totaling 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, and smooth shooting guard Deshon Taylor dropped in 19 points (7-of-14 FGs).
While Carter and Taylor were cooking, the Rebels were clanking from the areas of the floor that are supposed to produce the most efficient shots. For the game, UNLV shot just 14-of-24 on attempts categorized as layups or dunks, and just 4-of-20 on 3-pointers.
Sophomore wing Kris Clyburn provided a bright spot for UNLV with 18 points, 12 rebounds and two steals. After the game, he acknowledged the Rebels’ record but said he didn’t believe they were a last-place team.
“We’re really better than that,” Clyburn said, “but we shoot ourselves in the foot a lot. Missed free throws, not knocking down open shots. But once that all starts to fall, we can be pretty good.”
The closest UNLV had previously come to the ignominy of last place was the 1995-96 season, when Bill Bayno’s Rebels went 7-11 in the Big West and finished ninth out of 10.
UNLV had a chance to climb out of the basement on Saturday, as a win at Fresno State would have leapfrogged the Rebels over Air Force and into 10th place. Instead, the Rebels will go into the Mountain West tournament as the No. 11 seed and face the No. 6 seed on Wednesday in the play-in round.
Menzies said he was more upset about losing to Fresno State than he was about the Rebels’ overall record.
“The tough thing tonight is you just lost your last game of the regular season,” Menzies said. “For me, I want to win the next game, so whoever you play, you’ve got to beat them.”
Quick to turn the page, Menzies said he’ll shift his attention to the Rebels’ tournament foe as soon as the opponent is decided.
The good news for the Rebels is that while they may have finished in last place in the regular season, they’re now 0-0, just like everyone else heading into the league tournament.
“I think the guys will be ready to go on Wednesday,” Menzies said, “and I’m glad we got the win a few days ago, so they can have a sense of belief in themselves, especially at home when they bring the right mentality.”
Freshman forward Troy Baxter saw his first action since Feb. 8, returning from a foot injury to play the final 10 minutes. Menzies said Baxter tested the foot during pregame warmups but wasn't going to play until Tyrell Green tweaked his knee late midway through the second half. With a thin bench and the score out of hand, Menzies inserted Baxter.
Baxter responded well, posting six points, one rebound and one block while registering a team-best plus/minus rating of plus-6. He also threw down a vicious one-handed dunk that helped release some of his frustrations after being forced to sit out for the past month.
"Absolutely," Baxter said when asked if it felt good to take out his aggression on the rim. "That dunk was anger. That was me sitting down for a long time. That was stuff I've been dealing with the past couple weeks. It was an angry dunk."
Baxter said he felt no ill effects or rust from his injury.