Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 | 11 p.m.
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- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
FRESNO, Calif. — Two men spoke in the aftermath and offered the simple explanation, but there was nothing simple about UNLV’s 64-55 loss at Fresno State on Wednesday night. It was multilayered in its ugliness, and compounded with Saturday’s loss at Boise State it leaves a team with lofty national expectations three games back in its own conference.
The Rebels (17-6, 4-4) trailed by 16 in the second half at the Save Mart Center, home to the Mountain West’s only team with a sub.-500 overall record. Excluding the Bulldogs’ (8-13, 2-6) only other league victory, against Wyoming, they didn’t hold a lead of more than eight against a MW opponent. Until they played the Rebels, of course.
The game was tied at halftime and even if the listed attendance of 8,044 were accurate, that’s little more than half what the arena holds. There are intramural league games played at the UNLV Rec Center in front of rowdier and louder fans, yet the Rebels never gave the home crowd a reason to indulge its indifference.
In the end, once UNLV’s fate was sealed, several packs of Bulldogs fans still headed early to the exits, disinterested even in the team’s biggest victory of the season.
The simple explanation of how UNLV reached its new low point of the season, the one offered by coach Dave Rice and echoed by senior point guard Anthony Marshall, was that the Rebels missed open looks while the Bulldogs hit timely shots, a few of them backbreakers at the end of the shot clock.
“We just absolutely could not make a shot tonight,” Rice said. Marshall said the word “shots” eight times in the first minute of his comments.
They’re not wrong, exactly. UNLV got a lot of open looks, particularly in the first half, and didn’t get many of them to fall, shooting 35 percent from the game. Several of them performed the in and out dance with a rim that delivers an extra punch to the gut because you’ve already counted the points in your head.
But that’s not enough. Not when Nevada, San Diego State and Colorado State, the latter two teams supposedly UNLV’s competition for a league crown, had already come to this building and come away with victories.
Marshall finished with 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting with six rebounds in 37 minutes, stellar stats that comfort no one. He was also one of four Rebels to commit at least three turnovers as the team finished with 15 total.
Overall this was different from the Boise loss, Rice said. He called the Rebels’ first-half performance in that one “inexcusable.” This time around there was no such vitriol.
“It was not an effort-based deal,” he said. “Our guys were prepared and ready to play and gave a good effort. Just could not make a basket. I think we lost our confidence a bit on the defensive end because we couldn’t make a shot.”
Cimarron-Memorial High grad Kevin Olekaibe, a junior at Fresno State, scored a game-high 21 points that included four made 3-pointers. Tyler Johnson (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Kevin Foster (13 points on 5-for-6 shooting, eight rebounds) similarly carved up the Rebels’ defense, although as a team the Bulldogs shot only 38.8 percent from the floor.
The Bulldogs’ points came in a variety of ways, including 13 second-chance points off nine offensive rebounds. UNLV’s numbers were almost the exact opposite with nine points off 14 offensive boards.
The Rebels’ Anthony Bennett never found the extra gear that allowed him to takeover against the Broncos the other night. He needed 16 shots to score 15 points, and his nine rebounds were offset to a degree by three turnovers. No other Rebel scored more than seven points. Held scoreless were Mike Moser (0-for 3) and Justin Hawkins, who after an 0-for-4 night is now mired in a 3-for-23 shooting slump.
Rice searched for answers beyond the shooting and never came up with any. At one point he spent 15 seconds looking for the magic words and only came up with “We competed … We just …” before a reporter broke the silence.
Halfway around the arena, Fresno State coach Rodney Terry was giving his first winning press conference in three weeks.
“We played tonight, I think, the most talented team in our league,” Terry said. “You know we’ve got really good teams in our league, but I think man to man down their roster they have the most talent in our league.”
That must read like a backhanded compliment to the talented team that just got mollywhomped, a team that late Wednesday night took what had to be one of the most awkward plane trips in recent memory back to Las Vegas with a group of fans who flew in earlier in the day just for the game.
Yes, if UNLV had made more shots it would have won the game. And you could say the exact same thing for Fresno State, too. It doesn’t explain the turnovers, or losing a lot of 50/50 balls to a team that has only pride to play for, or several players getting visibly agitated at the first signs of failure. It doesn’t explain why these things often happen to UNLV on the road under Rice, who’s 3-9 in league road games, most of them as the favorite.
It’s hard to go away from home and get victories, though UNLV usually at least keeps it close. This wasn’t, and it leaves the Rebels far behind the leaders of the pack and puts them awfully close to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“Are we just going to lay down or are we going to battle?” said Marshall, who wasn’t asking the question so much as answering that he and his teammates would fight on.
“The only thing I know when you get knocked down,” Rice said, “is to get back up and go to work the next day.”
First-place New Mexico comes to the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday. A victory in that game once seemed like a bonus and now it’s all but mandatory, because that only cuts the margin to two.
Crazy things happen in this league but UNLV may have to sacrifice the game-to-game changes of chasing that trophy for fixing the systemic issues that may prevent it from snapping a four-game NCAA Tournament losing streak. There’s not a simple explanation or magic answer for what ails the Rebels.
They believe they have enough in their locker room to work through this. Everyone, especially their opponents, know they have the talent. The season’s not over; it just feels that way to a lot of people.
“In situations like this in any season there are two ways to go,” Rice said, “and we’re going to choose to go the way of banding together and making it right.”