Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 | 9:20 p.m.
Here are some observations from the UNLV basketball team’s 75-68 loss today against Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center. Yes, the 14-point betting favorite Rebels lost to Air Force. And at home.
What the game means: Falling at home to Air Force, the Rebels’ fourth loss this season in a venue in which they were previously unstoppable, will be the toughest to stomach because this defeat comes in league play. It’s difficult to win on the road in the Mountain West, meaning defending your home floor is vital in the journey to win a league championship. Even though the Rebels are just two games into league season, those dreams could be considered over. You can’t lose to Air Force, a team you were favored to beat by 14 points, and expect be a dominating team in the Mountain West. Lose to Air Force in the high elevation of Colorado Springs, Colo., and it’s understandable. Lose to them at home and it’s a head-scratcher. The Rebels didn’t deserve to win this game, plain and simple. Teams making just 14 of 23 on free throws don’t deserve to win. Teams that don’t execute in the final minutes don’t deserve to win. Air Force never backed down. The Falcons executed on both ends of the court, getting plenty of easy baskets after driving to the hoop and more than their share of open looks on the perimeter. And they couldn’t miss, making 44 percent of their 3-pointers. When UNLV rallied to take a lead for a few seconds late in the game, Air Force didn’t fold. They didn’t play like a team expected to lose. UNLV didn’t have that killer instinct from the beginning of the game, giving Air Force confidence early. By time UNLV started playing better, it was too late. The more talented team didn’t win today. That’s what happens when the more talented team takes the less talented team too lightly.
Late-game execution : The Rebels gift-wrapped a win earlier this season against Illinois, surrendering a 11-2 scoring run in the final minutes of a game they should have won. That night, the late-game execution was poor, likely the result of a team with some new pieces never being in a tight-game situation together before. They learned a lesson that night. Obviously, the learning process is ongoing. While the late-game execution wasn’t as poor tonight, it still left much to be desired. With a one-point lead and about 2:30 remaining, the Rebels’ Deville Smith passed on a 3-pointer in transition to drain time off the clock — a good decision. But UNLV couldn’t get a good look and Smith forced a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. It missed and Air Force rebounded, scoring on its ensuing possession for lead. On UNLV’s next possession, Kevin Olekaibe took a 3-pointer from the popcorn stand that had no chance. It was a wasted possession in a part of that game where each shot was vital. Then, of course, the Rebels couldn’t make their free throws with Bryce Dejean-Jones missing a pair with 45 seconds remaining to essentially seal UNLV’s fate. The woes at the end of the game should have never happened, though. UNLV shouldn’t have allowed Air Force to build such a big advantage.
A look at the box score : Mr. Double-Double Roscoe Smith had one of his worst statistical games of the season, scoring just four points and grabbing seven rebounds. He did hit a 3-pointer, his second triple of the season in just six attempts. Dejean-Jones led UNLV in scoring for the third straight game with 28 points, but made just 7 of 13 free throws and missed two crucial shots from the charity stripe with the Rebels trailing by one and seconds remaining. Those two misses will tarnish another great game, and rightfully so — your best scorer needs to deliver with the game on the line. Kevin Olekaibe was the only other UNLV player in double figures with 13 points. Air Force cooled off to shot 52-percent for the game, but when the Falcons grew their lead to 10 points in the first half they made 15 of 29 shots for 60-percent and seemingly couldn’t miss.
Up next : UNLV hosts UNR Wednesday, looking to extend their winning streak to nine consecutive games against the instate opponent. While some fans will classify this as a rivalry game because of the North-South hatred, the UNLV players surely don’t view this as a game of importance. They are more interested in beating Mountain West teams New Mexico and San Diego State, which sets up nicely for Reno. This is one of the most important games on the Reno schedule and knocking off UNLV would easily be one of the highlights of the year. But, if they lose, so what — that’s what Reno was expected to do. UNLV holds the all-time series lead 56-19. Adding to that is important to some alumni and fans, which means the UNLV players need to put on a show. Just don’t beat UNR; beat them convincingly.