Well, get used to it, because it appears that absolutely nothing will come easy on the road in the Mountain West Conference this season, no matter who you are.
Just hours after 13th-ranked San Diego State dropped its first league game of the year in a stunning 77-60 result at Colorado State, UNLV, for the second time this week, needed overtime to survive a road scare of its own.
The 12th-ranked Rebels rallied late on both ends of the floor to outlast Air Force, 65-63.
“I told the guys afterwards that, tonight, we could talk about a lot of things, but the thing I’ll talk about is the fact that we had 65 and a very well-prepared, hard-nosed Air Force team had 63,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We have a team that just finds a way.”
It was a game that mirrored Wednesday night’s 77-72 overtime thriller at Boise State, in which UNLV opened up a 12-0 lead out of the gates, let off of the gas a bit in terms of focus and execution, thus letting the Broncos right back in for the long haul.
On Saturday night, the Rebels (20-3 overall, 4-1 Mountain West) jumped out to a 17-8 lead less than five minutes into the game, starting off 8-of-10 from the floor during that hot stretch.
But this lead wasn’t built to last, either.
Coupled with poor shooting, UNLV had a tough time defending Air Force’s (11-8, 1-4) slowed-down, back-cut-heavy offense.
Rice admitted after the game that it wasn’t the Rebels’ defensive effort that bothered him as much as the uncharacteristic nine first half turnovers did. The Rebels trailed by one at the half, 34-33, despite shooting a blistering 56 percent from the floor.
In many ways, the second half was unchartered territory for UNLV, as the Rebels played with a smaller lineup than normal. Not only was that due to rising sophomore forward Carlos Lopez not dressed while resting a sprained right ankle, but they did so to better defend against Air Force’s deliberate offense, trying to force turnovers and create extra possessions.
“It’s a lineup we haven’t played but three or four possessions the entire year,” Rice said. “They were running their offense so efficiently tonight, the pace of the cuts was so fast, that we felt like guarding them (that way) the rest of the game was the best way to play.”
UNLV ultimately found itself down by five at 56-51 with 3:34 left to play, when the game plan all but went out the window and it was simply time to make plays.
Anthony Marshall was the first dormant Rebel to show up, hitting a key 3-pointer that helped UNLV start to climb back up the ladder. Traded free throws tied the game at 57-57 in the final minute, and just like they did on a final possession in regulation in Boise, the Rebels kept the Falcons from getting a clean look in the closing seconds.
And — also as was the case in Boise — UNLV simply made more plays in overtime.
• Oscar Bellfield, who has been in an offensive slump of late, showed signs of coming out of it with three huge second half 3-pointers against Boise State. On Saturday, he enjoyed his finest shooting night in quite some time, going 6-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-6 from long range, finishing with 15 points, seven assists and only one turnover in 38 minutes. His final dagger was a big trifecta midway through in the overtime period.
• Mike Moser, for the second time this week, played while battling the flu. And for the second time this week, he delivered in a big way. After finishing with 18 points and 21 rebounds against the Broncos, the final highlight of a 27-point, 12-rebound showing against the Falcons came with a dunk in transition 90 seconds into overtime that helped silence a swelling Clune Arena crowd of 4,170.
• Feeding Moser for the dunk was Chace Stanback, who did so after recording a steal near the top of the key. It was one of two major defensive plays Stanback came up with that helped salvage what was a rough night overall for the senior forward. He spent time playing both forward positions and even some center as Rice toyed with his lineup, but couldn’t get comfortable on the offensive end, going 1-of-10 from the floor and 0-for-5 from deep on the night. He also had a couple of unsightly turnovers along the way. But, along with the play that led to Moser’s dunk, he also deflected a pass in the closing seconds on the game’s final play that locked up the win for UNLV and kept Air Force from getting a shot up.
“Chace is in the locker room apologizing for missing shots,” Moser said. “A guy like Chace, we’ll get him as many shots as we can. As long as he brings it on the defensive end, we can’t complain about anything.”
That was the general sentiment of the entire team in the wake of the win — As long as they won, there’s little to get too stressed about.
Yes, the Rebels continue to struggle against half-court-oriented teams. Yes, they’re far from a dominant road team (but, then again, who in the nation is a dominant road team this season?).
But the win, coupled with San Diego State’s loss earlier in the day, tied UNLV with the Aztecs for first place in the Mountain West standings, with the lone remaining meeting between the two coming at the Thomas & Mack Center on Feb. 11.
A little over a third of the way through the conference schedule, this week proved one thing above all — Trying to predict what will happen over the next nine games in the chase for the regular season title is all but impossible.
UNLV will now face Colorado State at the Mack on Wednesday night before traveling to face Wyoming next Saturday in what should be another tricky road test.
“It’s a great start, and we saw what can happen,” Rice said. “We have so much respect for San Diego State, the program they have, how tough they are, and they go to Colorado State today and lose by 17 points. That’s how tough life on the road in this league is.”
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