Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 | 12:30 a.m.
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Dave Rice’s description of his team’s first-half performance Tuesday night wasn’t coach speak. Technically, it wasn’t even speaking.
The words came later — and surely there were plenty more in the locker room for a UNLV team that shot 24 percent and trailed at Portland (3-5) by six — but first was just a sound. It was the whistle that often accompanies Wil E. Coyote when he falls off a cliff, the effect getting softer and softer as he falls to his doom.
No. 21 UNLV (6-1) avoided the thud that usually finishes that scene thanks to its seniors, a defense that kept the Rebels within single digits and a huge second-half advantage in the foul department. Without all of those things, and a few more here and there, the Rebels wouldn’t have survived without starter Mike Moser to defeat the Pilots 68-60.
“Thank goodness that we’re a good half-court defensive team, because our half-court defense kept us within striking distance when our offense was anemic and we couldn’t make a shot whether it was contested or wide open,” Rice said.
Moser is going to get an MRI on Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas though he’s not ruled out of Sunday afternoon’s game at Cal. People may point to his absence as the catalyst for this performance but the problems were far greater than one man.
How bad was UNLV’s offense in the first half? Freshman Anthony Bennett scored the team’s first seven points. That’s good, except that UNLV still had only his seven with less than 10 minutes to play.
Bennett finished the first half with 11 points, exactly half of UNLV’s total, and he claimed the only made 3-pointer. The rest of the team went 0-for-14.
This is a constant battle for the Rebels. Rice wants them to have the freedom to shoot, but only if they first look inside. There was almost none of that in the first half. Most of UNLV’s attempts came early in the shot clock after no more than two passes.
“I would have been fine with all those shots if they’d come inside-out but we panicked a little bit the first half and took a few too many quick, semi-contested shots,” Rice said.
In the second half the Rebels trailed by nine with 16:39 remaining, and what came next would be the stuff of legend if the phrase could apply to a December nonconference game against an overmatched opponent.
From that time until he missed a 3-point attempt with 10:12 left, UNLV senior Justin Hawkins scored 15 points, including four 3-pointers, and dished out two assists with a steal and a block. Near the end of that stretch Hawkins could be found waving his arm in the corner, a demand he said any shooter would make during a streak.
“One of our shooters was going to get hot and it just happened to be me,” Hawkins said.
UNLV went from trailing by nine to leading by eight, a 17-point swing that included a combined 6-for-7 shooting at the free-throw line. That was huge in the second half as the Rebels got into the double bonus with more than 13 minutes to play. Really, this game could have easily been a double-digit victory had the team shot better at the line. In the second half the Rebels were 13-for-21, compared to the Pilots’ 1-for-2.
Usually if there’s a discrepancy in the fouls it favors the home team. While the numbers should never be that out of whack, both coaches agreed the calls went to the more aggressive team.
“A lot of the time the aggressor gets the whistle and we needed to step up a couple of times and take charges versus just trying to contain,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said. “We got them settling for 3s in the first half, and they can make those, but they didn’t so that worked to our advantage. The second half they got to the line and did a great job. That was the difference in the game.”
No one could really blame Reveno if he wanted to throw the referees under a bus. Center Ryan Nicholas had 15 points and 19 rebounds, a terrific performance all for naught. The second-half calls were so one-sided — 16 to four — that it had to be more than a little frustrating for the Pilots.
Still, UNLV did earn at least a few of those calls.
“There’s no doubt we were more aggressive on the offensive end,” Rice said.
Offensively it was like the Rebels were running a relay race the whole game, where only one guy could run at a time. Bennett, who finished with a game-high 18 points, came out of the blocks decently and eventually Hawkins grabbed the baton, surging UNLV into the lead. The other two legs of the race would go to seniors Anthony Marshall (16 points, six rebounds, four assists) and Quintrell Thomas, who had nine points and seven rebounds.
Thomas was a key piece on defense, too, the thing that carried UNLV while the shooters struggled. Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt combined to shoot 2-for-19, including 0-for-10 behind the three-point line.
Tuesday certainly didn’t calm any nerves for people who watched the Rebels struggle like this on the road time and again last year. The problems are still there and even more than the Oregon loss this game proves how much improvement UNLV still has to make.
That’s a major concern, no matter what word, phrase or sound you use to describe it.