FORT COLLINS, Colo. — It was the fourth road game in a row in which UNLV’s players had to exit the floor through a sea of students rushing from the stands.
Anthony Marshall hung around for a bit.
After escaping from the mob following No. 17 UNLV’s stunning 66-59 loss that was highlighted by a second half meltdown of seismic proportions, the UNLV junior guard took a seat on the scorer’s table and forced himself to soak up the scene.
In those few moments, the same adjectives to describe what had just happened went through his head.
“Embarrassed, angry, disappointed,” he said a little while later outside of the Rebels’ locker room. “In the first half, we controlled the game. In the second half, they just played harder than us.”
The wrenching road losses continue to pile up, new explanations are tough to find and about the only positive UNLV took with it from Moby Arena was that this was the last true road game it would have to play all season.
UNLV (24-7 overall, 8-5 Mountain West) finishes the road portion of its regular season with a 2-5 mark in road conference games and a 6-7 record in games played outside of Las Vegas.
In the process, the Rebels turned Saturday’s regular season finale at home against Wyoming into mostly a sentimental affair, as any shot at even a piece of the league title or the top seed in the upcoming Mountain West tournament are gone.
While UNLV squandered a 16-point lead in the game’s final 16 minutes, San Diego State easily pushed Boise State aside on the road, 66-53, and New Mexico stomped Air Force in Albuquerque, 86-56.
If the Aztecs can go to Fort Worth and knock off TCU on Saturday, they’ll clinch at least a share of the league crown and the MWC tourney’s top seed. If they lose and New Mexico can handle visiting Boise State, the title belongs solely to the Lobos.
But, chances are that talk of the Mountain West tournament won’t dominate conversations around Las Vegas over the next few days.
Wednesday’s loss in front of a fiery crowd of 8,371 in Fort Collins will sting for a while.
“We’ve certainly had some difficult losses this year, and this is absolutely right at the top,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I was so proud of the way we came out against a very good Colorado State, had our way in the first half, then in the second half we ran out of gas and they made us earn everything we got, and we didn’t make them earn enough baskets.”
UNLV played arguably its best road first half of the season, too, on both ends of the floor.
Behind hot shooting early from Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback, the Rebels built a 14-point lead with apparent ease, and even after a 10-0 Colorado State spurt made it a four-point game, UNLV buckled down and responded, taking a 41-26 edge into the half. It was all highlighted by Bellfield, who had maybe the finest half of his UNLV career, hitting four of five 3-point attempts and dishing out five assists with no turnovers in 19 minutes played.
UNLV even started the second half strong, leading 47-31 with 16:28 left to play.
And then …
• The Rebels’ offense went stale. They had trouble pushing the pace and working inside-out, and, in turn, shots started to miss as they were more forced than coming in rhythm. UNLV was 6-of-22 from the floor after the half, recorded only two assists and committed eight turnovers.
“They weren’t on the attack quite as much as they were in the first half,” CSU guard Wes Eikmeier said. “When they get those shots to fall early, they can open up the floor and the game really quickly. Part of that was we changed up our defensive scheme a little bit to make them more strictly of a half-court team (in the second half).”
• Colorado State, meanwhile, worked more efficiently in creating offense. The Rams got UNLV in foul trouble quickly, and hit 14 of 16 free throw tries in the second half. They were also 12-of-25 from the floor, with junior guard Dorian Green leading the way with several tough, key, momentum-swinging finishes inside.
• UNLV was out-rebounded 18-12 in the second half, and that charge was led by spark plug forward Pierce Hornung, who contributed two key stick-backs off of teammates’ misses late in the game to keep the Rebels from coming back. Those went down as four of Colorado State’s 13 second chance points in the second half alone.
• The Rebels’ defense also was not nearly as effective in the second half in terms of trapping the ball in the backcourt. Green had plenty to do with that, as he found ways to slither out of every double-team UNLV threw at him, and that seemed to knock the defense off of its hinges more than a few times.
• UNLV’s core pieces faded from the picture. After starting hot from the floor and showing some emotional fire, Chace Stanback scored two points in the second half off of 1-of-7 shooting. Bellfield scored only three of his 14 points after the break, and had no assists with one turnover in 19 second half minutes.
• Then there was Mike Moser, who is in his toughest funk of the season. He came off of the bench for the first time this season as punishment for missing a study hall meeting earlier in the week. After hitting his first shot and providing a spectacular behind-the-back assist to Justin Hawkins in the first half, he finished with a quiet five points and two rebounds before fouling out late. In his last four games, he is now 8-of-34 from the floor with 26 points and 26 rebounds to his credit — A trend that must change if UNLV hopes to find success in March.
“I really don’t think we did the things (in the second half that) in the first half that got us a lead,” Marshall said. “I really didn’t think they had an answer for us inside. When we got inside, we had anything we wanted, whether it was a layup or dishing to somebody else cutting. The second half, I feel like we really relied on jumpshots, threes. While they were chipping away, we’re shooting jump shots, bailing them out, not putting pressure on them on defense.”
Added Rice: “I’m not angry at our guys. We’ve got to get better in a short period of time. More than (angry), I’m just disappointed.”
Rice is now responsible for turning that disappointment into some form of motivation in time for Saturday’s 7 p.m. tip against Wyoming, who knocked UNLV off back on Feb. 4 in Laramie, 68-66. With each road loss, no matter what anyone might say, the team’s psyche is taking a heavy shot. Meanwhile, the Rebels’ potential seeding for the NCAA tournament is also absorbing hits.
The frustration was apparent both on the faces and on the Twitter feeds of the UNLV players afterwards, with a couple of profanity-laced posts going up not long after the game ended.
But actions moving forward will speak far louder than tweets.
While the Rebels were left in shock, the Rams (18-10, 7-6) celebrated a marquee league win on their home floor for the third time this season. They finished the home portion of their schedule by going 14-1 at home, including a 7-0 mark in league play. In the process, they may have punched their ticket for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2003.
And while Marshall choked it all down, there was a harsh reality to face — Time to build up confidence heading into postseason play by winning road games has run out. The next time UNLV drops a game outside of Las Vegas, it will mean that the 2011-12 season has come to an end.
“I don’t know, I just kind of took it in — I felt that feeling at TCU, it happened again tonight,” he said. “That’s something I’m going to remember. I just sat there to take it all in, try to use it as motivation like I do with everything else and not let it happen again.”
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