UNLV basketball:

Rebels’ momentum comes to screeching halt in loss to Air Force

Bryce Dejean-Jones tries to put 75-68 defeat on his shoulders for missed free throws but UNLV’s problems much bigger than that

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones runs into Air Force forward Marek Olesinski during their Mountain West Conference game Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

UNLV vs. Air Force: Jan. 4, 2014

UNLV forward Chris Wood buries his face in a towel during their Mountain West Conference game against Air Force Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Air Force upset UNLV 75-68. Launch slideshow »

It’s easy to point at two missed free throws with 20.2 seconds left in a one-point game and blame the guy who missed them. That’s what the guy who missed them did.

Despite a career-high 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting and six assists to one turnover, Bryce Dejean-Jones put himself at fault for tossing two free-throw attempts at the rim down the stretch tonight against Air Force.

“You never know what would have happened if I had made those two free throws,” Dejean-Jones said after the Rebels’ 75-68 loss to the Falcons (8-5, 2-0).

That’s true, but it’s also pretty clear that UNLV (10-5, 1-1) never would have been in the game if not for the junior guard who’s averaging 23.6 points over the last three games. The Rebels lost because they failed to stop Air Force’s backdoor cuts and executed an offensive gameplan that wouldn’t have looked much different had Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich drawn it up.

“We can’t get this one back,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We can learn from it.”

Air Force was the aggressor from the start and built a 10-point lead in the first half. Despite facing a significant size deficiency against UNLV’s Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, the Falcons effectively packed in their zone defense and dared the Rebels to beat them at the three-point line. The Rebels were all too eager to oblige.

UNLV finished 6-for-21 behind the three-point line. Deville Smith went 1-for-7 while Kevin Olekaibe was 3-for-9.

This was UNLV’s second-highest percentage of 3-point attempts this season — 21 of 53, 39.6 percent — and it came only a few days after the team shot 1-of-16 from deep at Fresno State.

The poor shooting didn’t sink the Rebels in that game because Birch and Roscoe Smith combined for 27 points and 29 rebounds. Those two didn’t have nearly the same impact against Air Force, finishing with a combined 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Birch did block four shots and Roscoe Smith made the signature play of his season, blocking an inbounds pass and then flinging it behind him over his head with both hands. It brought the Thomas & Mack crowd of 12,325 to their feet, and they sat back down after the Rebels missed a quick 3-point attempt at the other end.

Click to enlarge photo

After deflecting Air Force guard Zach Kocur's inbounds pass, UNLV forward Roscoe Smith leaps to keep the ball in play during their Mountain West Conference game Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

That was one example of UNLV killing its own momentum, but Air Force did plenty of that as well. The Falcons led by eight at halftime and could have caved at several different points in the second half as the Rebels started to get momentum and the crowd started to make a noticeable impact.

Air Force just never gave in. Four players finished in double-figure scoring, led by Tre Coggins’ 20 points. He caught the Rebels’ defense off-guard with 36 seconds left and drove to the lane for the go-ahead layup. Dejean-Jones got fouled on the ensuing possession, and after he missed both attempts the Rebels had to foul. Deville Smith missed UNLV’s desperation 3-pointer and the Rebels watched the Falcons put the finishing touches on an outright win as a 14.5-point underdog.

“We didn’t lose the game because of those two free throws,” Rice said.

He’s right. The Rebels’ inability to take better advantage of arguably the best frontcourt duo in the conference was a larger issue, as the undersized Falcons won points in the paint 36-24.

Air Force accomplished that largely because of UNLV’s other major issue on the evening: defense. Or, as Olekaibe put it, the Rebels’ failure to properly communicate at that end as the Falcons consistently crashed to the basket for layups.

“They beat us backdoor,” Rice said. “We got lost on a number of assignments.”

Junior Jelan Kendrick and freshman Christian Wood, both playing Air Force for the first time in their careers, looked notably lost on several defensive possessions. However, the postgame reasoning that Air Force’s unique system was hard for the Rebels — “We did our best to simulate what Air Force does,” Rice said — probably fell on deaf ears. UNLV also got lit up with the Falcons’ bread and butter offense in both regular-season meetings last year and were lucky to win one of them in overtime.

UNLV’s seven-game winning streak did a lot to ease the concerns caused by a 3-4 start, but those watching closely weren’t sure whether they could buy in just yet. The level of competition was much lower than the first seven games of the season and conference play is a different animal on top of that.

This was a chance to prove they had learned how to execute with the game on the line in the final five minutes. Instead, the Rebels are back to square one and must prepare for UNR at home Wednesday with crucial road trips to New Mexico and San Diego State on tap after that.

“Those two free throws were the outcome,” Dejean-Jones said.

Not even close. The Rebels’ problems go much deeper than that.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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