Loss to UNR exemplifies UNLV’s woes as program

Candice Ward-USA TODAY
The Sporting Tribune’s Will Despart writes about UNLV’s loss to rival UNR and the patterns that have plagued the Runnin’ Rebels’ season.

LAS VEGAS—UNLV’s five game win-streak went by the wayside on Saturday night, as the Runnin’ Rebels lost a 69-66 heartbreaker to rival UNR after yet another late collapse. 

UNLV controlled almost the entire game from the outset and led by nine points with under five minutes to go. It was around this point that Kevin Kruger made the decision to slow the pace of his already slow Kruger Ball offense, which allowed UNR to make their way back relatively easily in the final minutes.

Still, If UNLV had just made a single one of their last four free throw attempts then they would have probably walked out of the Thomas & Mack Center as the victors on Saturday. Dedan Thomas Jr. missed a particularly haunting pair with just over 20 seconds left as he went to the line with the Runnin’ Rebels down just one point.

“Obviously that was a tough way to finish the game,” coach Kevin Kruger said postgame. “We had a really good 36 or 37 minutes and just came out on the short end.”

It was yet another loss that exemplified the woes of the Kruger era and the program that he has built. When you neglect both shooting and fluidity, it leaves you with few consistently reliable options when you need an urgent bucket. And you’re gonna need a lot of urgent buckets in the Mountain West.

Per usual, a large chunk of UNLV Twitter called for Kruger’s job after the collapse. It would be easy for me to tell them they are overreacting, but the definition of insanity is watching the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly the quote. But the principle is still the same. 

The point is, the same nightmare that unfolded against UNR also happened against Utah State and Colorado State too. UNLV played 35-38 great minutes just to completely undo all of it by slowing down, panicking, and collapsing in the waning moments of the game. 

Then you have the even scarier duology of horror films that unfolded against Southern in the season opener and against Air Force last month.

After suffering that 32-point loss to Air Force at home, Keylan Boone told the media, “We didn’t come out with the right mentality, the right mindset. It’s not just one day, this was the whole prep of it. We could have been better in our preparation, getting ready for it.”

I’m certain that if UNLV were to get blown out by another sub-par opponent before the season ends, we’ll be going back to the same things we said after the Southern and Air Force games.

We’ve seen this story play out enough times that it would foolish to expect a different ending

It’s a scathing indictment on the entire program that a team who can’t handle the pressure of closing against top-tier Mountain West teams also feels that they are above any single opponent on their schedule. It’s also a scathing indictment that seemingly no lessons have been learned from the tough results that came at the start of the season.

That stretches beyond any one group of players. That’s a sign of a program that lacks a strong culture, which almost unanimously falls on the coach.

For a first time head coach like Kevin Kruger, you are willing to accept some of those growing pains if it comes with a clear light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t build a culture overnight. Especially at a school with as many skeletons in the closet as UNLV once had. 

The problem is, after three seasons now, the light has simply not shown up. I’m not sure it will.