The lesson this time: You can only flirt with fire for so long on the road before you finally get a bit of a burn.
After making enough clutch plays to overcome stretches of poor play last week to land overtime wins at Boise State and Air Force, No. 11 UNLV found itself on the wrong side of one of those nail-biters away from home on Saturday, falling to Wyoming, 68-66, at the Arena-Auditorium.
The Rebels (21-4 overall, 5-2 Mountain West) had two shots at forcing overtime on the game’s final possession, but a slightly obstructed look in close from Anthony Marshall missed, as did an open 15-foot jumper from Mike Moser.
But, in head coach Dave Rice’s eyes, it shouldn’t have come down to that final possession, as his team couldn’t completely play to its strength in the second half, failing to convert several times in transition.
“There were several fast break opportunities in the second half I was disappointed with,” he said. “We held them to 2-of-10 from 3-point range (after halftime), we’d get stops, and for momentum, we have to get down there and convert.
“I know some people think I give our guys too much freedom at times, but that’s just the way we’re going to play. But we have to get a shot in transition. Way too many turnovers in the second half in transition.”
Coming in, Wyoming (18-5, 4-3) had only allowed three of its first 22 opponents this season to score 60 or more points, and UNLV knew that to become No. 4 and also steal a victory, they’d have to push the tempo.
The Rebels did that in the first half and were efficient, hitting 14 of 22 field goal attempts before the break. To start the game, they worked inside through Brice Masamba, and did so later on through Quintrell Thomas. They didn’t get too trigger-happy with their outside shooting, but Wyoming was game for the challenge, and led at the half, 42-36.
UNLV did a much better job defensively in the second half, as Wyoming’s field goal percentage dropped from 54.2 before halftime to 37.5 over the game’s final 20 minutes. The Rebels, though, just had trouble being themselves on the offensive end.
Mike Moser struggled from the floor. Despite finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds, he had five turnovers in 32 minutes, including losing the handle a couple of times in the second half on the break.
His struggles, though, weren’t as rough as Chace Stanback’s, who yet again couldn’t get much of anything going on the road.
In 20 minutes, he had just two points and only attempted two shots, missing both of them.
Part of what has made UNLV so tough at home is that Stanback can break an opponent’s will three points at a time, as his shot is pure when at the Thomas & Mack Center. But having him on the floor not producing on the road makes separating on the scoreboard difficult.
Through seven league games, he’s averaging 16.7 ppg at home off of 54.8 percent shooting and 50 percent from deep. But in the four road contests, he’s only scoring 6.5 points per outing and firing away from the field at a 24.3 percent clip, and 26.7 percent from long range.
The Rebels also had to deal with foul trouble on the interior for the better part of the afternoon.
Despite all of it, the Rebels came back from what was a 6-point deficit with just over three minutes left to play. Two key plays in that final push came from Anthony Marshall, who first scored inside to make it a four-point game, then on the next possession forced a blocking call against Wyoming big man Adam Waddell that fouled him out of the game.
And it was Marshall who wound up with the first crack at forcing overtime after Dave Rice declined to call timeout following a Wyoming missed shot with just over 20 seconds to go.
“I have no second thoughts about not calling a timeout at the end, with how good Wyoming’s set defense is,” Rice said. “We had Anthony Marshall get an open look, and an All-American get an open 15-footer.
“Next time, if we get those same shots, I promise they’ll go in. I’m that confident in our guys.”
Until proven otherwise, chances are that there will be more chances for UNLV to have to deliver in the clutch on the road, as producing away from the Thomas & Mack consistently has been an issue for the Rebels in Mountain West play. At the half-way point on the league slate, they’re 2-2 on the road, having had to fend off potential game-winners from opponents on the final possession in regulation in both of their wins.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Rice said. “I know we’ll say there are a lot of seniors on this team, and that’s true, but the more experience we have going on the road as a Top-15 program, the better off we’ll be.”
Two of their three remaining road tests figure to be just as tough or tougher than Saturday’s trip to Laramie, which included an 11-hour trip on Friday due to weather conditions, playing at 7,200 feet above sea level and in doing so in front of a larger-than-normal crowd of 7,179. They’ll suit up at New Mexico on Feb. 18, then at Colorado State on Feb. 29.
Next on the agenda, though, is defending the home floor in what will end up being the Rebels’ biggest home game of the year. San Diego State comes to the Mack next Saturday for a 1 p.m. contest in front of what will be a sold-out crowd of more than 18,500.
With the loss on Saturday, the Rebels fell a game behind the Aztecs in the loss column atop the Mountain West standings, making next Saturday that much more important if they want to play their final six games of the regular season with a strong shot at an outright league title.
As for UNLV’s NCAA tournament résumé, Saturday’s loss likely won’t do much damage. The key is not letting it snowball, which has been a problem for the Rebels in recent seasons around the mid-way point in Mountain West play.
“We’ve bounced back after Wichita State, after Wisconsin, after San Diego State,” Rice said. “Now we need to bounce back off of Wyoming.”
Numbers of Note
• Quintrell Thomas had his second nice outing in a row off of the bench, producing 15 points to go with three rebounds in 19 minutes. He saw extra time due to Carlos Lopez still working his way back from a sprained right ankle and Brice Massamba battling foul trouble. Lopez played 10 minutes, and Massamba played 17 before fouling out late.
• Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield each chipped in 12 points for the Rebels.
• Wyoming deserves credit for the way it took care of the ball against UNLV’s pressure defense, committing only eight turnovers while dishing out 11 assists.
• Leonard Washington and Francisco Cruz led the way for Wyoming with 16 points apiece. Luke Martinez scored 15 off of five made 3-pointers, and Adam Waddell had 14.
• Wyoming only had two bench points, as its rotation was thinned out on Saturday largely due to knee issues for key reserve Larry Nance Jr., who played 15 minutes.