Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019 | 5:26 p.m.
When does a win not quite feel like a win? UNLV lived through that riddle on Saturday, when the Rebels walked onto the court at San Jose State as 13.5-point favorites and found themselves fortunate to limp off two hours later as 71-64 victors.
UNLV improved to 8-5 in Mountain West play with the win, but it was hard to tell from the team’s body language. The afternoon affair turned into an exhausting slog for the Rebels, as they shot 34.4 percent from the field and needed epically errant free-throw shooting on SJSU’s part to beat a team they had blown out by 38 points at the Thomas & Mack Center less than a month ago.
Instead of jubilance and glee as the UNLV side made its way to the visitor’s locker room, it seemed like the players were sheepish about stealing a decision against perhaps the worst team in Division I.
Coach Marvin Menzies railed against that attitude after the game, reaffirming that a win is a win — even if it comes by a razor-thin margin against the Mountain West’s only winless team (0-12 MWC, 3-21 overall).
Menzies said he wanted his players to focus on the fact that they won, and save any internal hand-wringing about their performance for later.
“We’re at a stage of the season where you have to get the win,” Menzies said. “You only get so many wins in your life, as a player, as a coach. You need to enjoy your wins. And then when we get to practice and film session, then we can do the education. But you should do this for the love of the game. And winning is a time to enjoy it. You don’t want to go in there and beat ‘em up. Now am I elated about the way we played? Obviously not. But they need to enjoy their wins.”
The Rebels certainly couldn’t have enjoyed trailing at halftime and being down, 48-47, with less than 10 minutes to play, but they had themselves to blame for that bit of adversity; UNLV came into the game as the MWC’s best 3-point shooting team (39.7 percent), but made just 4-of-20 from deep in the first half.
While UNLV was missing long shots, San Jose State was pounding the inside game. The Spartans built a 16-4 advantage in points in the paint through the first 20 minutes and led at the break, 31-28.
Menzies made an adjustment at halftime, calling for more ball pressure on the defensive end and more aggressive offensive rebounding at the other end. His hope was that those tweaks would raise the Rebels’ energy level, and it worked. UNLV forced six turnovers in the second half and grabbed eight offensive rebounds; the turnovers led to 10 points, while the boards led directly to 11 second-chance points.
Senior wing Kris Clyburn finished with two points on 0-of-12 shooting, but he hustled his way to four big offensive rebounds in the second half and finished with a team-high 14 rebounds. Joel Ntambwe led UNLV with 20 points but credited his teammates’ effort on the glass as a game-changer.
“The coaches kept telling us to keep crashing, and coach Menzies was hard on us about it,” Ntambwe said. “He told us if you miss a shot, just go out there and crash the boards, you can get a second chance. You can just run the offense again.”
Even with UNLV turning up the intensity in the second half, it still took an inept shooting performance from San Jose State to swing the game. The Spartans went 8-of-21 from the free-throw line and 4-of-23 from 3-point range; had SJSU just connected at an average rate, UNLV would have suffered the most ignominious loss of Menzies’ tenure.
Although San Jose State couldn’t get out of its own way, it still took UNLV more than 30 minutes to pull ahead. Two Clyburn free throws put the Rebels up, 50-48 with 9:21 to play, and Ntambwe followed with consecutive buckets to make it 55-50. Amauri Hardy slithered into the lane to score on back-to-back possessions to make it 61-54, and then Hardy hit the biggest shot of the game, canning an off-balance corner 3 as the shot clock expired to make it 64-57 with 1:19 to play.
Hardy finished with 15 points (12 in the second half), and UNLV made 7-of-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute to keep San Jose State at bay.
Outside the locker room after the game, Hardy couldn’t turn the page quickly enough.
“The mission is to come out of here with a ‘W.’ We did that,” he said. “It wasn’t a pretty game, as everybody can see. But I felt like the guys came in, played hard, missed a couple shots. We could have been better defensively, but we held them to 64 points and that’s good. That’s one of our goals. If we continue to do that we’ll be looking great going into Wyoming.”