Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 | 11:30 p.m.
Dave Rice sounded like a man trying to convince himself that his words were true while surrounded by skeptics. The answers trickled only with great effort, each one needing a push from deep inside a place that’s feeling beaten up and under attack after UNLV’s 61-59 loss to Illinois tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We’re going to be a good basketball team,” Rice said, almost in a whisper. “We’re fine.”
The Rebels (2-3) are under .500 for the first time since the 2005-06 season, and like last week’s 86-80 loss to Arizona State it was avoidable if only the home team converted down the stretch. UNLV led the Illini by 10 at halftime and by six with 6:07 remaining. From that point on, Illinois (6-0) went on a 10-2 run as UNLV failed to score in the final four minutes.
With only five games played, this season is far from over, but Rice’s disposition wasn’t the only sign that the Rebels are in their own heads questioning things. Junior forward Khem Birch put pressure on Saturday’s home game against Tennessee-Martin.
“After Saturday, that determines if we should be panicked or not,” Birch said.
So how will the Rebels react if they struggle in or lose that one?
Junior forward Roscoe Smith also admitted the Rebels didn’t react well when Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu attempted and made his first 3-pointers of the season. The 6-foot-11 Egwu put his team up one with 12:38 remaining on his first made 3-pointer and cut the deficit to three with just under six minutes left to start Illinois’ key run.
“That startled us a bit,” Roscoe Smith said. “We didn’t study that. That was something under the carpet.”
UNLV freshman guard Kendall Smith hit a jumper with 4:17 remaining that put the Rebels up by five. Here were their offensive possessions after that: Bryce Dejean-Jones missed an open 3-point attempt; Roscoe Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw attempt; freshman guard Kendall Smith committed a turnover; Dejean-Jones missed a mid-range jumper before ever passing the ball inside and Birch missed a putback attempt off that shot.
Meanwhile, Illinois was chipping away. After Birch’s miss, Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice, who scored a game-high 25 points, curled around a screen and made a layup with about 30 seconds left to break a tie and put his team up for good. Rice scored 13 points in the second half, including nine in the first five minutes of the second half to make the game a back-and-forth battle the rest of the way.
“They definitely took advantage of our mistakes defensively,” said junior Roscoe Smith, who finished with six points and 13 rebounds.
UNLV called a timeout after Rayvonte Rice’s basket and set up a ball screen for Birch to roll after setting the pick for Dejean-Jones. That never materialized and Rice called another timeout. This time he wanted another high ball screen for Dejean-Jones to head to his right with Kevin Olekaibe standing in the right corner.
Dejean-Jones lost control on his drive but was able to flip the loose ball to Olekaibe, who missed his corner 3-point attempt.
So over the final four minutes UNLV’s offense attempted only one shot in the paint, which was off an offensive rebound, and despite shooting 13-for-16 at the free-throw line, a miss still played a large role in the defeat.
“It’s always the second half,” Birch said.
UNLV shot 0-for-5 on 3-point attempts after the break and scored only 20 points in the final 20 minutes.
Birch and Roscoe Smith combined for 18 points, 23 rebounds and six blocks. Despite that rebounding total, Illinois lived up to its billing as a top-five offensive rebounding team in the country. The Illini corralled 15 offensive rebounds and outscored UNLV 19-8 on second-chance points. Illinois also led points in the paint 36-26.
Roscoe Smith said he could feel and hear how important boxing out himself and Birch was to their opponent.
“They didn’t worry about anything else,” Roscoe Smith said.
UNLV has plenty to worry about. The Rebels were a few plays away from winning each of the past two games yet came up short, and they narrowly avoided the same result in the three-point victory against Omaha a week and a half ago.
Rice’s team isn’t getting run out of the gym most of the time, but close losses attributable to in-game errors can cut even deeper. The Rebels must take a close look at themselves and decide how much they believe in what’s going on and act accordingly.
“We have to stay together,” Rice said. “That’s the only thing that we can do.”