After knocking off San Diego State on Saturday afternoon at home, there was a hint of disappointment hinging over the UNLV players, knowing that they missed an opportunity to leave the Aztecs in their dust rather than needing a few key defensive plays in the final minute to clinch the win.
Three nights later, the 11th-ranked Rebels again flirted with fire after holding a steep double-digit lead mid-way through the second half.
This time, they got burned.
After working its way back into a 3-way tie for first place in the league standings with SDSU and New Mexico, UNLV again finds itself with ground to make up following a stunning 102-97 overtime loss at TCU on Tuesday night.
“It’s painful, disappointing,” Rebels coach Dave Rice, clearly disturbed, said afterwards. “Nineteen offensive rebounds (allowed), that’s horrible effort on the defensive boards.
“We had 20 assists on 32 made field goals, made 12 3-pointers, made free throws tonight, but if that’s the sense of urgency we play with for an entire game, we’ve got a long way to go.”
UNLV’s loss adds even more relevance now to Wednesday’s showdown at Viejas Arena down I-15 between 13th-ranked San Diego State and New Mexico, as the winner will have first place in the league standings all to themselves, and the shortest path to the coveted top seed in next month’s Mountain West tournament.
While that game is being played out, though, UNLV (22-5 overall, 6-3 MWC) might still be trying to figure out where things went wrong on Tuesday night.
The Rebels came out hot on offense, hitting 48.3 percent of their shots and eight 3-pointers in the first half. But the problem for them was that TCU (15-10, 5-4) hit 48.5 percent of its first half looks, including nine treys. The Rebels had a tough time establishing any kind of dominance on the defensive end, and couldn’t keep Horned Frogs star senior guard — and Las Vegas native — Hank Thorns in front of them on the perimeter. When he wasn’t burying jumper after jumper, he was collapsing the defense and finding open teammates.
UNLV finally appeared to put its foot down in the first portion of the second half, after holding a slim 48-43 edge at the break.
TCU missed its first six shots of the second half, and UNLV finally asserted itself on defense in building an 18-point lead at 68-50 with 13:23 remaining on the game.
And then, as was the case when they led by double digits at home on Saturday, the Rebels again failed to place their foot on an overmatched opponent’s throat.
Against SDSU, it was UNLV’s failure to convert more than one field goal in the game’s final six minutes that was the main culprit behind things getting close. On Tuesday, it was leaky defense and an inability to dominate on the defensive glass.
UNLV finished the game with just 25 defensive rebounds compared to TCU’s 19 offensive caroms — a disparity that hasn’t been common for the Rebels this season, but ultimately sunk them in their final trip to Fort Worth before TCU bolts for the Big 12 next season.
TCU turned those 19 offensive rebounds — 13 in the second half and overtime — into 19 second-chance points, with many of those coming down the stretch as the hosts erased the remaining pieces of that double-digit deficit.
Thorns made back-to-back 3-pointers in the stretch run of regulation, and an Amric Field layup off of an Anthony Marshall turnover with 2:14 left would be the last points scored in regulation. UNLV had the last shot with the ball, but Oscar Bellfield lost control of the ball on a drive down the lane.
In overtime, TCU scored the first four points, and never trailed. The dagger was a 3-pointer by Thorns with limited visibility at the end of the shot clock with 1:23 to go that gave TCU a 96-91 edge.
“Our guys knew it was a big game for Hank Thorns, it was his last opportunity potentially to play against the Rebels,” Rice said of the Valley High grad and Virginia Tech transfer. “They were very good offensively.
“The game comes so easily to us sometimes on the offensive end, but we don’t understand sustaining it on the defensive end.”
The night went down as the unquestioned highlight of Thorns’ college career, as he scored a career-high 32 points off of 11-of-21 shooting, including an 8-of-12 performance from deep. He also had five rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes.
He led five Horned Frogs in double figures, as the wealth was spread thoroughly all night. TCU finished with 33 bench points.
For UNLV, it was far from a shabby night offensively.
The Rebels were 32-of-60 from the floor and hit 12 of 25 3-point attempts. Mike Moser led the way with 22 points and eight rebounds, while Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall scored 17 points apiece, Oscar Bellfield tallied 16 and Brice Massamba enjoyed one of his strongest offensive showings this season with 12.
Outside of TCU’s 46-31 rebounding edge, UNLV also turned the ball over 15 times, including four each from Moser, Marshall and Bellfield.
It goes down as yet another instance of UNLV struggling on the road — most notably in Mountain West play.
In league games, while the Rebels are 4-0 at home and winning by an average margin of 15.3 points, they’re 2-3 on the road, with the two wins being narrow overtime escape jobs at Boise State and Air Force.
The good news for UNLV is that three of its final five regular season games will be played at the Thomas & Mack Center. But the two away contests are two of the toughest the league has to offer — at New Mexico on Saturday morning and at Colorado State on Feb. 29.
In terms of staying in the Mountain West title race, UNLV needs New Mexico to come out on top at San Diego State on Wednesday night, so that the Rebels could potentially again force a 3-way tie on Saturday in Albuquerque.
“It hurts because we were in a position to go into that game in a good spot,” Rice said. “But we can’t look back, we can’t get this one back.
“We hit lapses. We’re a good basketball team, but for us to be a very good basketball team, we have to play better for longer periods of time.”