Steve C. Wilson / AP
Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Christine Killimayer come to you from Salt Lake City, where they discuss UNLV's 66-61 loss at Utah — the team's third straight — and what the implications were towards the Rebels' postseason hopes.
SALT LAKE CITY — For now, forget what outside experts and so-called bracketologists are saying regarding UNLV's NCAA tournament hopes, whether it be good or bad.
After another rough showing it appears that as important as winning games is now, it's also important to get back to playing like what — simply put — was a different-looking group.
Plagued again by the same woes — coming out of the gates flat, spotty rebounding and inconsistent scoring — Lon Kruger's club was again forced to fight from behind on the road.
And, again, an inability to get over the hump placed UNLV (19-7 overall, 7-5 Mountain West) on the losing end. It's also hard to completely ignore the fact that it may have put the team firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble.
"The loss is frustrating, but it's more frustrating that we don't fight for a whole 40 minutes," junior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "We came out so flat and we definitely weren't doing the things we wanted to do. That's the frustrating thing about it. You prepare to play as hard as you can play, and we had a couple miscues and things like that hurt us."
It was one thing for Willis — who led all scorers with 32 points — to say the Rebels were flat again. But it was noticed by the opponents who took advantage of it, too.
Carlon Brown, who led the Utes with 18 points and repeatedly hurt UNLV with his ability to explode with his first step, drive and finish at the rim, was asked if he thought the Rebels resembled a team ready to fight for a win they badly needed.
"I don't think they did in the first half," he said. "In the second half, they showed more of a sense of urgency, and Willis was getting into it with the crowd.
"I expected more from them, but I'm not going to say nothing. I'm going to take the win."
In the grand scheme of things, the loss did nothing more for the Utes (12-13, 5-6) than give them bragging rights, having swept the season series from the Rebels in an up-and-down year for Jim Boylen's club.
But the implications were bigger for UNLV, which lost more ground in an effort to improve its standing in the race for a potential at-large spot in March's field of 65. The loss dropped the Rebels into fourth place in the league as the three teams ahead of them — No. 12 New Mexico, No. 16 BYU and San Diego — only get hotter and hotter.
"We go into every ballgame thinking that way," Kruger said of the must-win label given by many to Wednesday's contest. "And we'll go into the next one thinking exactly the same way."
For as rough as things may have looked early on, the Rebels still had a chance to cover it all up late, showing the thinness of the team's margin for error.
Having not led in a game since being up 5-4 on San Diego State early Saturday afternoon, UNLV came back from a second-half deficit which was as large as nine points to tie it up at 61-61 with 2:15 to play. That was thanks to a second-chance bucket from Darris Santee, who hustled for an offensive rebound on the play.
After Brown hit a jumper to put Utah ahead by two, the Rebels called two timeouts to set things up for a crucial possession, and the plan was clearly to just get the ball to Willis and let him go to work.
There was no reason not to.
To that point, he'd scored 32 points, including 20 in the second half, as he was the Rebels' lone consistent scoring threat all night.
With the ball on the left wing, 20 seconds showing on the game clock and roughly eight on the shot clock, Willis put up a shot-fake on a 3-point attempt, drew his defender in the air, but then hoisted an uncomfortable-looking trey rather than putting the ball on the floor.
It missed, and Utah closed the game out from the free throw line.
"I was thinking about making the shot," he said when asked about his thought process after the head-fake. "But I feel like I let my teammates down, though, tonight. I felt like I could have done better. They put me in a position to tie or win the game, and I didn't make the most of the opportunity."
Added Kruger: "We wanted to get it in his hands. If he could jab-and-shoot, great. Obviously, he couldn't, but he had a little window there. Obviously it was a contested shot."
While Willis, being the team's unquestioned leader, spoke as if the loss was on him, the onus is now on everyone to stop the bleeding.
The final quarter of UNLV's regular season schedule begins at 3 p.m. Saturday with a home date against Colorado State. The other three games are against three teams directly below them in the league standings — TCU, Air Force and Wyoming.
For now, with the things that still need fixing, the Rebels don't want to go into specifics on the uncertain future.
"It's kind of a moot point," Kruger said when asked about the lost opportunity in terms of aiding the Rebels' postseason hopes. "Obviously, if you don't win a ball game, you lose the opportunity to put one in the right column. I don't know what else can be said about that. It's a lost opportunity."