Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 | 12:05 a.m.
With 4.6 seconds remaining in regulation and UNLV trailing by one point at San Jose State, freshman center Mbacke Diong decided to take a walk.
The 18-year-old Senegal native had just been fouled on a putback attempt on the Rebels’ final possession, sending him to the free-throw line for just the 11th and 12th attempts of his young career. Diong wasn’t even supposed to be on the floor for the final play — more on that later — but suddenly the game was his to win or lose.
Before his first free throw, Diong walked away from the basket to gather his thoughts. His stroll took him all the way past halfcourt before he reversed course and stepped to the line. His first pressure-packed attempt bounced off the rim. His second dropped in, forcing overtime.
The Rebels pulled away from there, outscoring San Jose State 16-10 in OT to escape with an 82-76 victory.
Diong, who posted career highs with six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes, didn’t disguise the fact that the moment got to him, necessitating his hike to the midcourt stripe.
“I was a little nervous because that was a lot of pressure,” Diong said. “But we practice those free throws and my teammates had me pick my head up and I just shot the free throws.”
After watching his young big man ride such an emotional roller coaster, head coach Marvin Menzies tried to settle Diong’s mind before the shots.
“He was very nervous to shoot his free throws,” Menzies said with a chuckle. “It was actually almost entertaining to watch his nerves — this freshman from Africa, the game is on his shoulders, he’s grabbing his head, walking to halfcourt. And I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s not life or death. You’ll be OK, just step to the line and do what you normally do.’”
Diong probably shouldn’t have been left in a position to decide the game. UNLV entered as 13-point road favorites, but the Rebels committed 21 turnovers and were never able to completely pull away from an inferior San Jose State team. UNLV led 62-51 with five minutes to play, but SJSU went on a late 15-3 run, capped by Noah Baumann’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 25 seconds to play.
UNLV committed four turnovers during that span, leaving open the very real possibility that San Jose State (which entered the game with a 3-10 record) could beat the Rebels here for the second year in a row.
"Just really bad execution," Menzies said of the final minutes of regulation. "I think we started to get nervous. We were choking. We didn’t execute at a high level. It’s one thing to get up shots and miss shots and they come down and score. It’s another to turn it over and they go down and score, and miss free throws and things of that nature. It was a bad winning time segment."
Menzies called timeout to set up the Rebels’ final possession, with the intention of subbing out Diong and inserting freshman center Brandon McCoy. But there was a mix-up at the scorer’s table, and McCoy was not allowed to check in.
“I told him to check in,” Menzies said. “I guess he didn’t go far enough or he didn’t wave or he didn’t get their attention. But he was supposed to be in for the final possession of regulation.”
So instead of the team’s leading scorer, it was Diong who found himself at center for the final play. He said Menzies gave him detailed instructions after McCoy was denied entry.
“Coach told us to go to the glass,” Diong said.
Senior point guard Jordan Johnson drove and attempted a game-winner from the right side, but the shot missed long. Diong collected the rebound and was fouled.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Diong said.
After Diong’s rebound and foul shot sent the game to OT, the Rebels took control. Jovan Mooring hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to give UNLV a 72-69 lead, and UNLV attacked the rim and earned 16 free throws in the extra period, making 11.
It was an ugly win, and UNLV won’t beat many other Mountain West teams playing at the level they did on Wednesday. But Menzies wasn’t about to turn it down.
“[It’s] just conference,” Menzies said. “You’ve got to get out of here with wins. Obviously, there’s always blemishes. Every game — wins and losses — there are blemishes. There are things to work on, there are a lot of consistency things we didn’t do well.”
Mooring making a statement?
Senior guard Jovan Mooring has taken some heat from Menzies (and from portions of the fan base) due to his shot selection several times this season, most recently after a 2-of-14 showing in the Rebels’ last game, an 82-73 loss to Boise State. So was he making a statement by refusing to shoot against San Jose State?
Mooring played 38 minutes but attempted just two shots on Wednesday — one a breakaway layup attempt that was blocked from behind, and his go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime. It was the fewest shots he has attempted in his 47-game career at UNLV.
Mooring said there was nothing intentional about his passive performance.
“Just basketball and taking what the defense gives me,” he said.
But when asked how San Jose State’s defense limited him, Mooring offered a somewhat contradictory statement, saying SJSU’s defense had little to do with his play.
“It wasn’t anything particular,” Mooring said. “I think the way I play is pretty much on me, and picking my spots and trusting the positions that the coaches put me in on the floor. There’s nothing the defense is doing to limit anything I can do.”
Menzies downplayed Mooring’s limited output, pointing out that the Rebels’ offensive game plan was focused on passing the ball inside. And Mooring did register six assists, tying a season high.
But Menzies said Mooring did turn down some open looks.
“I think we were trying to get the ball inside and I think he was being a little more patient,” Menzies said. “But I think [he] also probably had a lot of open shots that were inside out that [he] kind of passed on.”
Menzies then said Mooring is still developing within UNLV’s offensive system and that it would be a mistake to focus on the statistics from any one game.
“Learning to respect this game and play this game the right way is a process,” he said. “And even though Jojo is a senior, he’s still being educated in the game. At the end of the day, he hits a big 3 that makes a difference for us.
“I wouldn’t put too much on one game’s performance in terms of shot attempts.”