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Live blog: Mooring ices Rebels’ win at Air Force

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s guard Jordan Johnson (24) soars past the Illinois defense for a shot attempt during their game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.

Updated Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 | 9:06 p.m.

Jovan Mooring, the Rebels' recently maligned senior shooting guard, came through in the clutch, draining a long 3-pointer with 19 second to play to ice UNLV's 81-76 win at Air Force.

The Rebels were clinging to a 77-75 lead, and Mooring dribbled the shot clock under 10 seconds before making his move. He pulled up in front of an Air Force defender and let fly from the right wing, and when the shot splashed through, UNLV's win was assured.

Mooring finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, so it appears his slump is over. Jordan Johnson was the team's high scorer with 20 points.

The Rebels had no difficulty on offense, shooting 63.0 percent for the game, but Air Force hung around thanks to a 19-2 advantage in second-chance points.

UNLV is now 13-4 on the season and 2-2 in Mountain West play.

UNLV, Air Force going down to the wire

Jordan Johnson just hit a 3-pointer to break a tie and give UNLV a 71-68 lead with 3:53 to play.

The Rebels had gone more than three minutes without a field goal until Jovan Mooring swung a pass to Johnson on the right wing, allowing the point guard to step into the open 3. Johnson has a team-high 16 points on the night.

The shot was big, as it momentarily stunted Air Force's momentum. The Falcons have turned up the pressure over the last eight minutes, and their aggressive offensive rebounding continues to give UNLV trouble. Forward Frank Toohey will head to the free-throw line to shot a pair after the timeout.

UNLV leads Air Force, 59-50

UNLV hasn't quite been able to pull away from Air Force, but with 12:00 left in the second half, the Rebels do have a fairly healthy 59-50 lead.

Kris Clyburn opened the second half on fire, scoring back-to-back fast-break layups and adding a driving bucket to bring his scoring total to a team-high 13 points on the night.

Rebounding has been an issue for the Rebels. Air Force has hit the glass aggressively, pulling down 10 offensive rebounds so far. That has led to 12 second-chance points, which has kept the Falcons in this one.

UNLV leads Air Force at halftime, 43-37

Jovan Mooring appears to have broken out of his slump, as he hit three 3-pointers in the first half to help UNLV go into halftime with a 43-37 lead at Air Force.

Mooring connected on 3-of-4 from long distance, accounting for all of his team-high nine points. As a team, UNLV shot 68.2 percent over the first 20 minutes and had little difficulty with Air Force's zone defense (aside from eight turnovers).

On the other end of the court, it appears as though UNLV has added a defensive wrinkle. The Rebels spent all of the first half in a man-to-man alignment, but Marvin Menzies had his players switching every screen, on the ball and off the ball. It seemed to help cut down on dribble penetration, and Air Force shot 44.4 percent for the half.

UNLV builds early lead at Air Force

Tervell Beck will head to the free-throw line after this media timeout to try and complete a 3-point play, and with 5:42 left in the first half, UNLV has a 35-24 lead over Air Force.

Offense has come easy for the Rebels, who are 12-of-18 from the field. Beck has seven points off the bench on 3-of-3 shooting.

Rebels jump out to 22-11 lead at Air Force

UNLV has started stronger than they have in weeks, and with 11:03 left in the first half, the Rebels have a 22-11 lead at Air Force.

Led by Kris Clyburn (seven points, 3-of-4 FGs), the Rebels have made eight of their first 11 shots, efficiently picking apart Air Force's zone defense on just about every trip down the court. Jordan Johnson has six points, and Tervell Beck has five points off the bench.

Interestingly, UNLV has also played zone defense in the early going, perhaps in an effort to bolster their interior defense. It's been somewhat effective so far, as Air Force has made just 5-of-12 from the field.

Three keys for UNLV basketball at Air Force

Can an early-January game at Air Force really be a must-win situation for UNLV basketball? In the technical sense, no, because this contest (and the 14 regular-season matchups that will follow it) will not affect the Rebels’ postseason chances and mostly serve as a tune-up for the Mountain West tournament in March.

But in a figurative sense, it is very important for the Rebels to win this game. A loss would drop them to 1-3 in conference play and raise serious doubts about whether they have the fortitude to contend for a league crown this season.

Can UNLV do something it hasn’t done since 2014 and win at Clune Arena (7 p.m., ATT SportsNet)? Three keys for the Rebels:

Defend the rim

UNLV has struggled to defend the rim in three conference games, and until the Rebels find a way to make life difficult for opponents driving to the basket, wins will be hard to come by. One solution could be to give more playing time to freshman big man Mbacke Diong. He has impressed in limited minutes this season, and in conference play, opposing teams are shooting 35.6 percent when he’s on the floor (compared to 54.8 percent when starting center Brandon McCoy is on the court).

Make shots

The 3-point shot is not a big part of UNLV’s offense — the Rebels have made just 97 total this season, which ranks 300th out of 351 Division I teams. And that makes sense, due to the team’s dominant post play, led by McCoy (19.3 points per game) and Shakur Juiston (15.3). But in today’s game, it’s nearly impossible to win without at least posing a threat from beyond the arc, if just for spacing purposes.

It would make things easier for the Rebels offense if shooting guard Jovan Mooring were to break out of his slump sooner rather than later. He made 38.0 percent of his 3’s over the first 13 games, but he’s connected on just 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) over the last three games — all Mountain West contests. We know Mooring is streaky, and tonight against Air Force is as good a time as any to get his touch back, as the Falcons allow opponents to make 39.6 percent of their 3-pointers — ranking them 341st out of 351 teams.

Winning time

Head coach Marvin Menzies preaches “Winning time,” which is defined as the final four minutes of a close game, when the value of every possession is magnified and the smallest plays can be the difference between winning and losing.

The problem is, UNLV hasn’t been very good in winning time this season, and the problem has gotten worse in Mountain West play. UNLV was dominated down the stretch in a loss to Boise State, and San Jose State ended regulation on a 15-4 run to force overtime (although the Rebels escaped with an OT win). And on Saturday, it was Utah State closing the game with a 9-0 run to hand the Rebels another loss.

UNLV is not a young team — the backcourt is comprised of two fifth-year seniors in Mooring and Jordan Johnson, while swingman Kris Clyburn and power forward Shakur Juiston are both juniors. And McCoy is obviously not a typical freshman. So inexperience can’t be an excuse — the Rebels simply have to play with more poise late in games.

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

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