December 18, 2018 Currently: 55° | Complete forecast

Rebels come up empty in late loss at Illinois

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels forward Joel Ntambwe (24) is slow to get up from the court after an injury in the final moments of a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday Dec. 1, 2018. The Bearcats beat the Rebels 65-61.

UNLV had a chance to steal Saturday’s game at Illinois in the final seconds, but the Rebels just couldn’t finish. Amauri Hardy passed on a potential game-tying 3-pointer on the final possession, and Illinois intercepted the ball to send the Rebels home with a 77-74 defeat.

It was the third straight loss for UNLV, dropping the team to 4-4 on the season.

The Rebels trailed by 13 points with eight minutes to play, and Illinois still enjoyed a 72-63 advantage with 2:57 remaining, but UNLV kept coming. Freshman Joel Ntambwe scored seven straight points, and Hardy followed with five straight to make it 74-70 with 1:38 to play. A Mbacke Diong putback dunk made it 76-74 with 18 seconds left, and after Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu made 1-of-2 free throws with 13 seconds remaining, UNLV had a chance to tie it with a late 3.

Hardy dribbled down the left wing and attempted to step back for a 3, but Dosunmu stayed tight. Hardy went up for the shot, realized in mid-air that Dosunmu would block it, and attempted to kick it back to teammate Noah Robotham near the top of the key. Illini guard Andres Feliz stepped in front of the pass for the easy steal and dribbled out the clock on UNLV’s comeback attempt.

After the game, Hardy blamed himself for passing on the last shot.

“Honestly, I should have just shot the ball,” Hardy said. “[A shot] is better than a turnover. Maybe they would have called a foul or something like that. Anything is better than a turnover at that point.”

Hardy finished 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting off the bench. He was 0-of-4 from 3-point range.

It was the third straight ugly offensive performance for the Rebels, who shot 33.8 percent as a team (23-of-68). Ntambwe led the way with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting, and Mbacke Diong posted 13 points on 4-of-7 from the field. The rest of the squad combined to go 14-of-42 (26.9 percent) while committing 17 turnovers.

Finishing around the basket was a particular issue for UNLV, as the team converted on just 8-of-17 shots categorized as “layup attempts.” Illinois shot 15-of-20 on layups and out-scored the much bigger Rebels in the paint as a result, 40-30.

The offensive woes put UNLV in a double-digit hole for much of the second half, but Ntambwe’s breakout game sparked the near-comeback. The 6-foot-8 forward made both of his 3-pointers, and his frenzied defensive effort helped the Rebels get some key stops down the stretch.

In Ntambwe’s 27 minutes, UNLV actually outscored Illinois by three points.

“Coach Marv told us, ‘Just play defense. Just play as hard as you can, switch everything and go out there and play,’” Ntambwe said of his surge. “And the game ended up coming to us in a tight ball game.”

Feliz finished with a game-high 19 points, while Dosunmu tallied 10 points. Illinois shot 47.5 percent as a team (28-of-59).

UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies had one timeout remaining before the final offensive play, but Illinois coach Brad Underwood had called for time before the Illini’s previous possession, which gave Menzies a chance to set up what he wanted to run.

Hardy said the call was good, but the executing was lacking.

“It’s a play that we usually go to to try and get us a 3,” Hardy said. “Unfortunately we didn’t end up getting a shot off. Probably should have shot it anyway. It’s just one of those plays where I feel like we [could have] executed a little bit better, as far as finding the guys on defense and hunting them up and setting a screen. But when we get back into practice we can draw up something and try to get a better shot and better look because it was tough on me to try to get a shot off, but for the most part I tried.

“It’s definitely worked for us in the past,” he continued. “[Illinois] probably scouted that play as a late-game play, so they probably knew what was coming at that point.”

UNLV will now have six days off before facing BYU at T-Mobile Arena on Dec. 15.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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