Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
Well, at least it's over.
The Rebels came out of it on the right side, downing the Falcons 49-42, but it was far from an inspiring performance as Lon Kruger's club now turns its focus to Saturday's monster of a game at Colorado State.
"All wins are good. We'll start with that," Kruger said afterward. "It wasn't easy, wasn't very pretty. Guys did a great job defensively in the second half, struggled all night offensively.
"Anything that wasn't good offensively, we basically were. Sluggish is probably a kind word, so we'll take it."
UNLV's offensive struggles of late continued with a 14-of-42 performance from the floor and a 2-of-14 showing from 3-point range.
There were a couple of reasons for the problems early on. One was the mixture of zone defenses Air Force (10-14 overall, 4-7 Mountain West) threw their way. UNLV (19-7, 7-5) also looked a little emotionally drained still form Saturday's tough 63-57 home loss to No. 6 San Diego State.
It all contributed to the Falcons taking a 23-22 halftime lead on the Rebels, leaving an uneasy feeling throughout the sparse, subdued crowd at the Mack.
"There were a lot of mixed emotions," sophomore guard Justin Hawkins said of the mood at intermission. "You could tell how everyone was so up and down throughout the locker room. We just knew that we had to pick it up individually and as a team."
It took a few minutes for that to actually happen, though.
UNLV wouldn't get the lead back for good until Tre'Von Willis dropped in a second-chance bucket with 9:14 left to play. It came in the middle of a 13-0 run that stretched out for more than 13 minutes.
For as rough as the Rebels were offensively, the Falcons were simply worse.
They only managed five points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. Jeff Reynolds' club, which also pushed UNLV to the brink in Colorado Springs, Colo., a month ago before dropping a 64-52 decision, was 16-of-44 from the floor.
"It's always an ugly game when we play Air Force," Hawkins added. "It was very sluggish."
UNLV finished Air Force off at the free throw line down the stretch. Willis, who didn't score his first point until there was just over 10 minutes left to play, went 9-of-10 from the free throw line in the second half, helping him score a game-high 13 points.
The Rebels also had 15 turnovers across from only nine assists, and their 49 points tied a season low.
Willis was the only Rebel to score in double figures in a game that will likely be forgotten pretty quickly.
The short-term memory also comes into play with the team's most important remaining regular season game now on the horizon.
UNLV is in a three-team race with Colorado State (17-7, 7-3) and New Mexico (17-8, 5-5) for third place in the league. CSU is at TCU on Wednesday night at 5 p.m., while UNM has a tougher task in hand to stay in the race, playing at SDSU at 7:30 p.m.
The Rebels and Rams have the two most compelling profiles in the Mountain West behind SDSU and BYU for NCAA tournament bids, and if the league only gets three teams in, Saturday's result could end up holding a lot of weight.
If CSU wins, it'll have a solid-looking season sweep of UNLV on its résumé and would leave the Rebels at 0-6 against its three toughest league foes.
If Kruger & Co. can get the win, it will help erase the 78-63 loss they suffered at home to the Rams on Jan. 19. It was one of UNLV's uglier defeats this season not just because it came at home, but due to the Rebels' admitted lack of fight in the contest.
Saturday's game will tip at 4 p.m. at Moby Arena, which is quickly becoming one of the MWC's tougher road venues.
"They got us one time early on in league play. We've just got to return the favor over there," Hawkins said. "I think this time we're going to be mentally prepared for it because we know Colorado State is a good team and they'll bring everything they've got at us."