Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 | 11:29 p.m.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — No. 17 UNLV had an extra day to get a road victory in February, one more chance to answer the most confounding question of its otherwise stellar season. But Wednesday night ended just like all the rest.
Court stormed. Heads down. Another step back, this one a 66-59 loss to Colorado State that saw the Rebels blow a 16-point lead.
"I don’t have the words to express what just happened," junior guard Anthony Marshall said.
After the final buzzer, Marshall made his way through the crowd and took a seat on the scorer’s table while about a thousand green-and-gold clad fans, mostly students, partied on the court in front of him. It’s the fourth consecutive time a team has stormed its court against UNLV.
“I felt that feeling at TCU and it happened again tonight and that’s something I’m going to remember,” Marshall said. “I just sat there to take it all in, just use it as motivation as I do everything else and try not to let it happen again.”
The victory puts the Rams (18-10, 8-6) firmly in the NCAA Tournament conversation — a possible fourth bid for the league — and assures that UNLV (24-7, 8-5) can’t finish any higher than the third seed in the Mountain West tournament.
San Diego State and New Mexico are tied for first, one game ahead of UNLV, and no matter what those three teams do, the tiebreaker would come down to Wyoming, which favors the Aztecs and Lobos. A three-way tie for the conference regular-season title is still possible, but it’s very unlikely and also would ring a bit hollow after all of these disappointments.
The Rebels now are 6-7 in games played outside of Las Vegas. This was their last chance to prove to themselves that they’re capable of pulling out a victory in a hostile environment. The NCAA Tournament won’t be that bad, but it’s not in Vegas, either.
Instead of improving their psyche, UNLV saw a 16-point lead vanish over a 10-minute span in the second half, and once that happened it couldn’t muster a response.
“The focus tonight was simply competing for a regular-season conference title,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I think the byproduct would have been confidence in March, I have no doubt about that, but that was not our focus.”
Senior guard Oscar Bellfield led UNLV with 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-for-8 behind the three-point line, and five assists. Marshall added 11 points, six rebounds, three assists and two highlight-worthy blocks, and senior center Brice Massamba, limited a bit by foul trouble, was solid in his minutes.
That wasn’t enough to balance the scales, though. Senior small forward Chace Stanback was a man possessed in the opening minutes, but then he finished 4-of-12 shooting. Sophomore forward Mike Moser grabbed two rebounds and shot 1-for-10, an ugly exclamation on a four-game stretch that saw him average 5.2 rebounds and 5.2 points on 8-for-34 shooting.
“Certainly our guys will take this one very hard, as we all should,” Rice said. “It’s one that was right there for us.”
That’s true, but the outcome was also inevitable because the Rebels showed that they still haven’t fixed any of the problems that have plagued their road losses.
Giving up offensive rebounds: From 3:11 to 1:01 in the second half, Colorado State forward Pierce Hornung grabbed three offensive rebounds that led to six points. His final board and basket, which was the 13th second-chance points the team scored in the second half, put the Rams up 63-59 and the Rebels wouldn’t score again.
“It was a recurring theme for us of not being able to get a timely defensive rebound,” Rice said.
Perimeter defense: The Rebels actually fulfilled one goal as Rams guards Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green combined to shoot 1-for-11 behind the three-point line. Trouble is, perimeter defense also includes the dribble-drive, and on that measure Green laid waste to UNLV’s defense. He split every double-team and constantly found room to get his shot off on the way to a team-high 16 points.
“They played more minutes tonight than we did,” Rice said.
Mental toughness: UNLV committed just two turnovers the entire first half. In the first five minutes of the second half, it already had four. When the pressure rose and the crowd got loud, the Rebels shrunk and relied on jump shots, Marshall said, instead of attacking the rim.
UNLV was outscored in the second half 40-18, just more than a week after New Mexico did nearly the same thing, 39-18.
“In the second half they played harder than us,” Marshall said.
The script was too familiar. It was basically a combination of the blown lead at TCU and the second-half no-show at New Mexico. Without progress, it’s hard to believe that UNLV can excel outside of Vegas. Yet that’s exactly what Rice will tell his team that they’ll do, because he has to.
Rice put Wednesday’s loss at the top of the list and fans probably won’t argue. The Rebels fell in the same fashion once again, and all they can try to do now is get back up.
“We’ve got to rise above it,” Rice said. “We can’t get this game back.”