Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 | 10:07 p.m.
UNLV dug itself a 15-point deficit in the first half on Saturday against Utah State, and though the Rebels flipped a switch in the second half and made a spirited run — even taking a small lead late in the game — it wasn’t enough to complete the comeback.
Utah State got back-to-back 3-pointers from Sam Merrill and Kobe McEwen in the final two minutes, and that was enough to finish off the Rebels, 85-78.
After a promising 11-2 run through non-conference play, the Rebels have stumbled to a 1-2 start in Mountain West action, and a distinct lack of intensity was the determining factor against Utah State.
UNLV opened the game in a man-to-man defensive scheme, but the Rebels executed it with a sleepwalker’s verve for the first 16 minutes. Utah State had little difficulty penetrating for easy baskets, and when the halftime buzzer sounded, the Aggies had scored 46 points on 56.7-percent shooting.
Freshman center Brandon McCoy said the Rebels may have underestimated how much energy it would require to stay with a team like Utah State, which came into the contest with a modest 9-7 record.
“I feel like in the first half, we didn’t really play with much enthusiasm,” McCoy said. “In the second half, we saw that they were actually a really good team...We saw they were really going to come at us and we tried to lock in, but it was too late.”
McCoy led the second-half charge for UNLV, as he posted 14 of his game-high 23 points after the break. He shot 9-of-13 for the field, and it was his short turnaround jumper in the lane that gave the Rebels a 78-76 lead with 2:01 to play.
Merrill followed that by knocking in a quick 3-pointer to regain the lead for Utah State with 1:42 to play, and after UNLV point guard Jordan Johnson missed a 3 at the other end, McEwen dribbled down the shot clock before burying a dagger from the right wing to make it 82-78.
McEwen finished with 21 points, while Merrill chipped in 20.
UNLV actually held Utah State to 48.3 percent from the field in the second half, but the Rebels’ lackluster defensive effort in the first half was too much to overcome.
Head coach Marvin Menzies took the blame for the low-energy showing.
“[Utah State] out-hustled us in the first half, and that’s on me,” Menzies said. “I’ve got to right that part, because it’s one thing if you have miscues or if you don’t make shots, but I feel like we could have played a little more intelligently according to the scouting report, because we gave them too many good looks.”
Utah State shot 52.5 percent for the game, including a 10-of-25 performance from 3-point range. The Aggies are the second straight team to make double-digit 3-pointers against UNLV following San Jose State’s 10-of-22 showing on Wednesday.
UNLV shot 47.0 percent from the field, but managed to make just 6-of-23 from beyond the arc. Jovan Mooring struggled with his shot and finished 2-of-13.
The Rebels are now 1-2 in conference play and 0-2 at home, which is not exactly the start the team expected after rolling through the non-conference slate with blowout win after blowout win.
McCoy said the team isn’t losing faith, and expressed confidence that they’ll be able to turn things around.
“It’s hard losing, but it’s a learning experience,” he said. “I feel like the atmosphere in the locker room is going to be the same. We know that we’ve got to buckle down in practice as well as in games. We’ve got a tough road game ahead of us. We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board, because we want to win. I feel like we’ve still got a chance to do some big things this year. We’ve just hit a couple speed bumps.”
Menzies also used the phrase “back to the drawing board” in his postgame remarks, and noted that the Rebels will have to solve their lack of intensity before they move on to more technical coaching points.
“We can’t stay down for long,” Menzies said. “We’ve got to get back up. We’ve got to show them what they did wrong, show them the level of intensity, their stances, their lack of communication with each other. I’ll be able to show them — some of [Utah State’s] guys out-sprinted us down the floor.
“We’ve been grinding pretty hard and we need to look at all aspects of what we’re doing, and make sure between our individual [workouts] and our practices that we’re not wearing them down too much. Because we literally looked a little listless in the first half.”
A trip to Air Force looms on Wednesday, and though the Falcons are just 6-9 overall and 0-3 in the Mountain West, another lackluster effort from UNLV won’t be good enough.