Welcome to the new life on the road in the Mountain West.
After losing its road opener in conference play at San Diego State, No. 12 UNLV got all it could handle — and then some — yet again, but from a far more unlikely source.
The Rebels needed overtime, but remained within a game of unbeaten SDSU in the league standings with a 77-72 nail-biting victory over Boise State on Wednesday night.
It’s not just the league’s better balance from top to bottom that is making playing away from Las Vegas this year, though. It’s the number next to UNLV’s name that is going to keep things interesting on the road. As the first ranked opponent to head to Taco Bell Arena since 2009, they had to survive in an environment that was far more boisterous and hostile than normal.
“I told the guys after the game, that that’s respect for our guys and what they’ve been able to accomplish so far,” coach Dave Rice said. “I’m proud of them. It’s new, we’re growing and learning.”
Rice said that his proudest moment of the night was a memorable defensive stop on the final play of regulation that not only forced overtime, but gave UNLV the final boost it needed to secure its third win in a row.
Getting to that point, though, was a bit of a struggle.
After jumping out to a 12-0 lead out of the gates, UNLV (19-3 overall, 3-1 Mountain West) couldn’t keep upset-minded Boise State (10-9, 0-4) down.
UNLV needed a late Justin Hawkins 3-pointer just to take a 29-27 halftime lead, then spent most of the second half swapping punches with a Boise State team that got tougher and more confident as the game got deeper.
When it came down to it, Boise State had the ball with 30 seconds left and the game tied at 64-64.
Out of a timeout, Broncos point guard Derrick Marks dribbled the clock down to just below seven seconds before trying to drive against Oscar Bellfield. Off of a screen, Brice Massamba came over to offer timely help defense, forcing an awkward cross-court pass, where Mike Moser played the perfect angle and blocked a last-second 3-point attempt.
It was sweet redemption for UNLV after defensive miscommunication between Bellfield and Moser led to Jamaal Franklin scoring a game-winner for San Diego State in the Rebels’ Mountain West opener. It also gave UNLV all of the confidence it needed for overtime, where it looked like a team with both the emotional and physical upper hand from start to finish.
“All five guys on the court did exactly what the game plan called for, with how we guarded the side ball screen, the rotation, the angle we closed out on to block the shot,” Rice said of the game’s crucial possession. “Our guys were so confident after blocking that shot, we had a good feeling that overtime was going to go our way.”
UNLV essentially cruised through overtime, and combined with Colorado State’s 32-point loss at New Mexico on Wednesday, the Rebels are now all alone in second place in the league standings.
The Rebels were paced offensively in their first three Mountain West games by Anthony Marshall, who came in averaging 22 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the first three conference tilts.
However, after hitting a 3-pointer for the games first bucket, the 6-foot-3 junior guard had a tough time getting anything going offensively. He ultimately fouled out late in the second half on a questionable charging call with five points, seven rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. He was just 2-of-11 from the floor and 1-of-5 from long range.
While he struggled, Bellfield, who has been plagued by a shooting slump over the past few weeks, surged when UNLV needed him the most.
He was just 11-of-40 in the team’s previous six games, and despite going only 4-of-13 from the floor against Boise State, Bellfield hit a trio of huge 3-pointers after the break, including one in overtime, finishing with 13 points, six assists and only two turnovers in 39 minutes played.
“One guy who he’s not ever criticized by is his head coach,” Rice said. “No doubt Oscar gets frustrated with himself when he doesn’t make shots he feels he should make, but he’s been a great leader all season, and his perseverance helped us get through tonight.”
Added Bellfield: “It’s definitely a relief. Thanks to the coaching staff and my teammates for having the confidence in me, telling me to just let it go and that they believe every shot is going in. I just took what the defense gave me, made the extra pass, and if they weren’t open, took the open shot.”
UNLV was led by Mike Moser, who recorded team-highs with 18 points and a whopping 21 rebounds. With several family members in attendance from Portland, Ore., he played 34 minutes despite spending much of Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon under the weather. By the end of Wednesday’s game, he’d lost his voice.
Chace Stanback also stayed hot, scoring 15 points, including a 3-of-6 showing from 3-point territory.
As a team, UNLV was just 24-of-69 from the floor and 13-of-34 from deep, but did go 9-of-18 from 3-point range in the second half and overtime combined.
Short-handed Boise State was led by the freshman Marks, who scored a career-high 21 points in only his third career start, while senior forward Thomas Bropleh had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
The Rebels will fly home Thursday morning, then have a light practice on campus late in the afternoon before going a little harder on Friday, then traveling for yet another road tilt. They’ll play at Air Force (11-7, 1-3) on Saturday night.
Despite the Falcons having struggled so far in league play, just like Boise State, the Rebels now know for sure that there will be no gimmes on the road in Mountain West play this year.
“With a target on our back, everyone’s looking to come out and have their best game,” Bellfield said. “We have to come out and stay together, like we did tonight, and pull out these games.”
Update on Lopez
Sophomore forward Carlos Lopez left the game in the second half with what is being diagnosed as a sprained right ankle, according to Rice.
The severity of the injury and whether he’ll miss any time will both be reevaluated on Thursday morning.
It’s the same ankle that Lopez sprained before the season, forcing him to miss the opener against Grand Canyon. Because of the injury, he was only able to play eight minutes on Wednesday after a breakout performance on Saturday against New Mexico, when he scored 14 points in 14 minutes off of the bench.