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Rebels rocked at Utah State, left searching for answers on defense

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Eli Lucero / The Herald Journal via AP

UNLV forward Cheikh Mbacke Diong (34) has his shot blocked by Utah State center Neemias Queta (23) during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Logan, Utah.

With about four minutes left in UNLV’s loss at Utah State on Saturday, the Rebels found themselves trailing by 23 points. The game was over, but senior guard Noah Robotham wanted to set an example for his teammates by playing tough defense until the final buzzer.

But as he marked his man in the backcourt, a Utah State big man caught him with a blind-side pick, knocking Robotham to the floor. By the time Robotham was able to get up, clear the cobwebs and get back into the play, USU guard Sam Merrill had already swished a 3-pointer to make it an 80-54 game.

UNLV coach Marvin Menzies pulled Robotham at the next timeout to spare him any more contusions. A few minutes later, the book was closed on the Rebels’ third straight demoralizing loss, this time by a score of 82-65.

After breezing to a 5-1 start in conference play, UNLV is now reeling. The schedule got tougher but the Rebels haven’t, and now they find themselves with a pedestrian 5-4 record in the Mountain West and an 11-10 mark overall.

Outside the visiting locker room at the Spectrum Center, Robotham stressed the importance of keeping the team together despite the losing streak.

“We just have to continue to get better and not splinter,” Robotham said. “Obviously, when you lose it’s a bit divisive, and I think being a leader on this team I’ve got to tell guys to stay confident, stay positive and keep getting in the gym.”

The Rebels were shredded defensively for the third straight game, allowing Utah State to shoot 49.2 percent from the field and 10-of-23 from 3-point range, and Robotham thought his team could have showed more toughness on the defensive end — especially after he hit the deck. Instead of standing up for a teammate who was leveled in a 23-point game, the Rebels seemed not to mind.

Robotham pointed to the bone-rattling pick that crumpled him as a teachable moment for his young teammates.

“That bothered me a little bit, getting hit that hard,” Robotham said. “I wish somebody would have kind of chucked him on that end, because it’s like if somebody gets a dirty hit on your quarterback. You’ve got to protect him.”

Led by Merrill’s 20 points, Utah State controlled the game for its entirety. The Aggies raced out to an 8-2 lead, and a 3-point play by Merrill made it 19-7 less than eight minutes into the contest. Merrill closed the half with a conventional 3-pointer to give Utah State a 48-28 lead at the break.

Robotham wasn’t the only one who wanted the Rebels to show a little more fight on the defensive end, as Menzies was also unhappy with his team’s energy in the early going.

“We’ve got to come out with more defensive intensity,” Menzies said. “You can’t start a game down 20, 22 points on the road against a quality team and expect to win the game.”

UNLV has been exposed defensively over the last three games, allowing San Diego State, UNR and Utah State to shoot a combined 51.2 percent from the field (87-of-170) and 44.6 percent from beyond the arc (25-of-56). The Rebels have lost the last three games by an average score of 17.0 points.

Menzies said the team has not progressed as quickly as he thought it would, especially on the defensive end, and said that will be a priority moving forward — even if the short-term results are as ugly as the Utah State loss.

“I thought we might be a little further along,” Menzies said. “We’ve tried some things, scout-wise, to win games — junk defenses and tricky stuff to try to be successful for a game. But if you’re going to be really good, you’ve got to have an identity that says who you are at the end of every game. That’s why I didn’t try anything out of the ordinary tonight. We need to get better. If we’re going to have any chance of playing our best basketball, we’ve got to get better at this.”

Freshman Joel Ntambwe led UNLV with 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting and Amauri Hardy and Kris Clyburn scored 14 apiece, but their efforts on the offensive end were outweighed by the Rebels’ inability to get stops.

At the half-way point in the Mountain West schedule, Menzies stressed the importance of getting the team on the same page as quickly as possible. The Rebels head out on the road again to take on Boise State on Wednesday, then return home to host Fresno State on Saturday.

If the defensive lapses and the lack of toughness continue, so will the losing.

“As crazy as it sounds, I still think they’re giving me some effort,” Menzies said. “They are giving me effort, they are playing hard, they are trying to fight. However, we’re just making too many mental errors and too many miscues. There’s just a lot of immaturity in that realm defensively that we need to fix. They need to be connected as five guys defensively, and quite often we’re not.”

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

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