LAS VEGAS — It was a golden opportunity to build some much needed positive momentum, get right back in the conference race and perhaps put themselves in a position to challenge for the regular season championship.
Instead, UNLV found itself struggling at home once again, unable to parlay the big win over previously unbeaten New Mexico from last Saturday and allowed Boise State to run a clinic on unselfish offensive basketball.
The Broncos’ 84-66 win Wednesday night in front of 5,102 at the Thomas & Mack leaves Kevin Kruger’s team in a bit of a hole as far as the Mountain West is concerned. Being 1-3 is far different than 2-2 and while there are still a lot of games still to be played as Justin Webster astutely pointed out, any notions of winning the conference have been greatly compromised.
“It’s a long conference season,” said Webster, one of the few Rebels to show up Wednesday with 13 points. ”We’ve got to get ready fr the next one.”
That would be Saturday at home against Colorado State. Perhaps UNLV’s “Big Three” of EJ Harkless, Luis Rodriguez and Keshon Gilbert show up against the Rams. They were missing in action for long stretches against Boise State, which shared the ball, found the open man and knocked down shots with alarming regularity, particularly from the perimeter, where the Broncos shot 53.8 percent after making 14 treys, including one from coach Leon Rice’s son Max just four seconds into the contest.
“They did a good job of sharing the ball,” Kruger said of Boise State, which is 3-1 in the Mountain West (13-4 overall). “They’re a good passing team. They found the open man and knocked down their shots.”
It’s looking more and more like the Rebels’ NCAA Tournament hopes will be determined by three days in mid-March when the Thomas & Mack hosts the Mountain West tournament. Perhaps things get turned around and they go on a run and play themselves back into the conference race. But within the remaining 14 games are a return trip to Boise, a road game at conference-leading San Diego State along with home-and-home games with Nevada and Utah State.
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
UNLV’s defense, which had been its identity in the non-conference portion of the schedule, has been sporadic in league play. The Rebels are surrendering 78 points a game. Teams are taking them off the dribble, getting wide-open looks from the 3-point arc and building sizable leads, forcing UNLV to expend more energy just to try and get back into games.
It’s a bad formula and after somehow managing to lead BSU 33-31 at halftime, the Broncos went on an early 14-3 run in the second half, led by as many as 16 and the closest the Rebels got was 66-60 with just under eight minutes remaining.
UNLV’s 4-of-12 performance from the free-throw line in the second half didn’t help matters. For the game, the Rebels were 6 of 14 at the line. To shoot 43 percent at home is simply unacceptable along with being abysmal.
“We sleepwalked through the first half and it carried over to the second half,” Webster said.
And had Jordan McCabe not shown up and scored nine first-half points, UNLV would once again have been trailing at halftime. By the time Gilbert (14 points) and Harkless (12 points) showed up, it was too late. It was a tough evening for Harkless in articular. Moments after Rice’s opening 3-pointer, Harkless hit the floor hard, landing on his right hip. He was down for a couple of minutes, managed to leave the court under his own power and return. But the Broncos sent a distinct message. They were not going to let UNLV’s top player dictate the terms of this contest and they jostled and banged Harkless at every turn. A 5-of-18 shooting night proved that the ploy worked.
“We’ve always played hard,” Kruger said. “That’s not the issue. We did some things that are uncharacteristic for us.”
Kruger and his players sent a message of their own after the loss. Usually, it’s a few minutes before the players and coach appear for the postgame news conference. Wednesday, the players and Kruger were in the room and gone even before the final stats had been distributed. It was clear they wanted to put the loss in their rear-view mirror as quickly as possible and move on to Saturday.
“Not the night we were looking for,” Kruger said, summing up the way things turned out. It’s the one thing UNLV got right.