Thursday, March 8, 2018 | 2:25 p.m.
The Rebels may want to consider channeling their nickname and officially submit to their northern neighbors.
UNR’s dominance of UNLV in the schools’ most prominent athletic teams has never felt more pronounced than in the last eight days. The crowning achievement in the span is a pair of victories for the Wolf Pack’s upstart men’s basketball team over the Rebels’ proud program, with the second coming Thursday afternoon in a 79-74 win.
Might as well layer the Fremont Cannon with an extra coat of blue, the color the Wolf Pack left the Rebels’ season with a second-half return to form in the Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinals. Blue, also the color UNLV fans were feeling as they filed out of the Thomas & Mack Center with their heads down.
It’s difficult not to feel down over the state of the Rebels with the way their season ended, losing six of seven, with the only victory an overtime escape against an inferior Air Force. The latest UNR letdown confirmed what felt mostly already guaranteed: UNLV will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year.
That’s unacceptable for the Rebels’ fan base, and it’s a fair expectation based on the advantages the program should have in recruiting, facilities and history. But was it a fair expectation to reach that promise land this year?
That’s debatable at best, given the disarray the Rebels were in a season ago. Regardless of how bitterly the season concluded, there’s no arguing that UNLV’s 20-13 campaign signaled progress.
Probably not enough progress, but progress nonetheless. The downfall at the end of the season puts the pressure on Marvin Menzies to deliver in his upcoming third year.
And frankly, his Rebels weren’t reliable in high-pressure situations this season. UNLV showed an inability to finish in close games, losing its last four by six points or less.
The Rebels consistently failed to corral what put them in position to win games in crunch time. Their conference tournament ouster was another example.
UNLV built a 12-point lead over UNR a minute into the second half by stiffening its interior defense and successfully stretching out its 2-3 zone to limit open three-point looks. The Rebels then appeared to tire and stopped closing out as well, allowing the Wolf Pack to hit five straight threes as part of three-touchdown run.
UNR outscored UNLV 35-14 over the next 12 minutes with Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens leading the way with a combined 36 total points to take control of the game. The Rebels showed some resolve in battling back before resorting to old habits.
Brandon McCoy — who chipped in 12 points and 14 rebounds in likely his final game at UNLV — was a terror defensively in the first half with three blocks. But he had nothing for Caleb Martin with 1:30 to go, when UNR’s star backed him down for an all-too-easy and-one to make the score 77-70.
UNR then helped give UNLV a fighting chance by surrendering a 4-point possession, and Martin missing the front end of a one-and-one. But the best shot the Rebels could muster with a 77-74 deficit in the final seconds was exactly what anyone who’s watched them all year may have feared — a long three-point heave from Jovan Mooring that had little chance of going in.
Mooring was the most important piece of UNLV’s inspired opening 20 minutes, as he made everything late in the first half to go into the locker room with 13 points. He wouldn’t score in the second half.
The loss was not in any way as embarrassing as last Wednesday’s 101-75 blowout loss to the Wolf Pack, and the Rebels’ finest moment of the Mountain West season came when they traveled to Reno and won 86-78.
In the end, however, the Silver State series was a lot like UNLV’s season: Minor victories mixed with far more frustrating defeats.
The pressure is on to fix it next season.