Wednesday, March 8, 2017 | 8:30 p.m.
As the final seconds ticked away in UNLV’s 62-52 overtime loss to San Diego State on Wednesday, the clock wasn’t just counting down the 45 minutes of game time that had transpired at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The clock actually started ticking back in April, when Marvin Menzies signed a contract to become UNLV’s head coach. From the moment he put his name on the dotted line, everyone involved knew this was going to be a rebuilding year — a year of on-court struggles and development. Though no one within the program would come out and say it, wins and losses were going to take a backseat in 2016-17. The real target was the 2017 offseason, and that clock was always running.
So when the timer hit all zeroes on Wednesday and the countdown ended — after UNLV had given away a 21-point lead and been outscored, 12-2, in overtime — it was hard to hold the loss against the Rebels. They played as hard as they could, then ran out of energy, ran out of players and, eventually, ran out of time.
Now it’s up to Menzies, in his first full offseason on the job, to roll up his sleeves and continue laying the foundation for a future winner at UNLV. And that clock starts ticking now.
Some of the Rebels’ future was on display in a glorious first half against a San Diego State team that has tortured UNLV in recent years. Junior point guard Jovan Mooring started out hot, scoring 15 first-half points to help stake UNLV to a 32-14 halftime lead, and sophomore wing Kris Clyburn and freshman center Cheickna Dembele played key roles defensively to help the Rebels build their advantage.
All three of those players are set to be key rotation pieces next year, and that should give the Rebels a solid base around which to build.
The cracks in the foundation started to show in the second half, however. UNLV is a thin team — five players logged more than 32 minutes on Wednesday — and after expending a ton of energy by playing frantic man-to-man defense in the first half, the Rebels started to wear down. After holding SDSU to 14.8-percent shooting in the first 20 minutes, the tiring Rebels allowed SDSU to shoot 42.3 percent the rest of the way.
“They got tired,” Menzies said. “I rode a few guys. Played less guys and played them more minutes. Six guys really played the game, and it was working. But they hit a wall.”
UNLV’s lack of offensive skill, which had been the team’s biggest weakness all year, also came back to haunt in the second half and overtime. Long scoring droughts allowed San Diego State to go on separate runs of 14-0, 11-0 and 12-0 over the final 25 minutes. The 12-0 spurt came at the beginning of the overtime period, as UNLV missed its first three shots and committed four turnovers while SDSU pulled away.
Mooring finished with a game-high 18 points and five assists, but fouled out with five minutes to play in regulation with UNLV trailing, 47-46. Without their top playmaker, the Rebels struggled to score down the stretch, tallying just six points in 11 minutes of game time after Mooring was disqualified.
After UNLV had squandered its lead, sophomore guard Jalen Poyser hit a jumper to bring the Rebels within 50-48 with 2:34 to play. Christian Jones was fouled on the next possession and hit 1-of-2 free throws to bring UNLV within one.
UNLV had a chance to win on the final possession in regulation. The Rebels trailed, 50-49, with 10 seconds remaining when Jones was fouled again. He missed the first free throw and had to make the second just to send the game to overtime.
By the time the Rebels got into the extra period, the gas tank was already on empty. San Diego State scored the first six points, and then guard Trey Kell swished an off-balance 3-pointer to give the Aztecs a 59-50 lead with 1:21 to play. That was the final nail in the coffin and the official beginning of UNLV’s offseason.
Mooring, who ended the season as UNLV’s top scorer (12.6 points per game) and playmaker (4.0 assists), said the Rebels faltered at both ends of the court in the second half.
“We missed a couple of shots in the second half that we were making in the first half,” Mooring said. “We weren’t getting the stops we were getting in the first half. So that’s pretty much how it goes.”
After going 11-21 in his first season at the helm and ending the season on such a down note, Menzies took to the podium after the game and said he was still confident in the direction of the program and ready to get started with a very important offseason.
“I still feel like the luckiest man on the planet who has had a bad day,” Menzies said. “We’re in a great city. We’re in a town that’s the mecca of basketball. We’ll be able to get players in here. That’s not going to be an issue. We’ve got a fantastic fan base. We had some loyal fans that suffered through the worst record in the history of the program and showed up cheering to the last buzzer. You can’t make that up.
“I think the challenge for me was the expectations I had for myself and this program for this year,” he continued. “I wasn’t sure what I had, so I’m always a positive and optimistic guy. I was hoping that we’d get more upsets during the season, but that didn’t come to be. So, next possession. Let’s move forward and keep doing what we do, which is win games and win over fans.”