Ugly, boring wins at home over Air Force at home have been a consistent theme for the UNLV men’s basketball team in recent years.
Saturday’s meeting at the Thomas & Mack Center was headed down that same path.
Then Brice Massamba erupted.
The UNLV senior forward, after getting tangled up on the defensive glass with Air Force’s Chase Kammerer, lost his cool, got in Kammerer’s face, then charged briefly towards the Falcons’ bench — which allegedly spewed some not-so-kind words at him — and was charged with an untimely technical foul.
No one was quite sure what was said from the Air Force bench that triggered Massamba’s reaction, and coach Dave Rice said after the game that he and his staff were looking into it.
But, whatever it was, it led to the Rebels slamming the door.
UNLV ripped off a quick 7-0 run after a pair of technical free throws by Air Force sliced the Rebels’ lead to 10 points, woke up a crowd of 16,036 and kept Rice’s club perfect at home on the season.
No one – including Massamba – could or would say what exactly was said by the Air Force bench, but it may have been a strange blessing in disguise for UNLV, who took the shot of adrenaline and applied it the right way.
“I told the guys after the game that there were a lot of things I was proud of them about today, but the thing I was most proud of was that they had Brice Massamba’s back,” the first-year UNLV coach said. “When that situation took place, it was his fourth foul, he had to go out of the game, our guys responded and played as hard and as together as they had all day.”
Just like it did on Wednesday in a dominating rout of Boise State, 21st-ranked UNLV (24-6 overall, 8-4 Mountain West) came out and established suffocating defense against an over-matched opponent. The Falcons (13-13, 3-9) shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half, and a 14-point halftime deficit could have been much worse had it not been for reserve guard Kyle Green. Green, who was 4-of-22 from 3-point range in his career coming in, went 4-of-4 from deep before the break.
And, just as was the case on Wednesday, the game hit a standstill on both ends coming out of the locker room.
The Rebels held Air Force at arm’s length, but the Falcons — whether it was intentional or unintentional — woke up a sleeping giant when Kammerer tripped Massamba up under the basket.
Play was stopped for a couple of minutes while the officials sorted everything out, with the UNLV players huddled and trying to sharpen their focus during it all.
“I was just trying to explain to him how important these next couple of games are, how we don’t need anything to happen where he has to sit out,” forward Mike Moser said. “It definitely fueled us. Whatever the exchange was, it definitely hyped us up a little bit.”
After Todd Fletcher’s technical charities went through, Anthony Marshall and Moser each hit a pair of free throws off of aggressive drives to the bucket. The dagger for UNLV came immediately after, when, off of a defensive board by Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield nailed a transition 3-pointer to make it a 17-point game with 5:59 left to play.
The final stats read both good and bad for UNLV, but mostly positives.
Stanback started hot, and finished with a game-high 21 points, hitting five of seven 3-point attempts while continuing his trend of torrid outside shooting at home. In the process, he also passed Rebel legend Reggie Theus on the school’s all-time scoring list, now checking in at 23rd with 1,187 career points.
Marshall tallied 15 points, while Justin Hawkins contributed 11 off of the bench.
As a team, UNLV was 20-of-49 from the floor and 9-of-19 from deep. They also had a strong night at the free throw line — a touchy issue of late — by hitting 19 of 25 attempts.
The Rebels out-rebounded Air Force, 40-30, and the only glaring negative for Rice’s club was 21 turnovers.
Either way, it improved UNLV to 15-0 at home this season, and with one home game remaining — next Saturday night against Wyoming — the Rebels have a shot at their first perfect home record in a season since 1991-92.
But first, there’s a major hurdle to clear.
UNLV hits the road on Wednesday to face Colorado State, surprisingly finding itself in yet another three-way tie atop the league standings with New Mexico and San Diego State. After having the league title all but locked up a week ago, costly losses at Colorado State on Tuesday and at TCU on Saturday night dropped the Lobos back down with the masses.
It’s left a heap of potential tie-break scenarios in terms of seeding for the upcoming Mountain West tournament, with every game being played in the league this week factoring in in some way.
The Rams, meanwhile, haven’t lost at home in conference play, and UNLV is just 2-4 away from the Mack in MWC games.
The home wins over the teams at the bottom of the league to finish out the season are nice and all, but a win in Fort Collins could go a long way for the Rebels, both in terms of their own psyche and in the standings.
“It’s kind of known we struggle on the road,” Moser said. “If we can get this win, we could end the season on a good note for ourselves, to know that we can do this.”
To do so, UNLV’s offensive execution will have to be much more crisp than it was on Saturday, and limiting turnovers will be key.
The Rams have scored home upsets over San Diego State and New Mexico by locking down on the defensive end and keeping both foes from finding any kind of a rhythm. They’ll have extra motivation to do the same on Wednesday, with the possibility of securing an NCAA tournament at-large bid still hanging in the balance for Tim Miles’ club.
“It’s the teams that continue to play the hardest, try to stay away from injuries and stay together that keep getting better,” Rice said. “I know I learned a long time ago that in February, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. There’s no in-between.”