ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Another year, another unexpectedly early locker room scene with blank faces, towels over heads and questions floating in the air.
What if UNLV hadn’t missed so many 3-pointers in the opening minutes? What if the Rebels had found a way to utilize their size advantage and control the glass better in the game’s first 30 minutes? What if Justin Hawkins’ late corner trey attempt had gone in, tying the game rather than rimming out and setting up Carlon Brown’s game-clinching slam in transition?
It’s a pointless exercise, as nothing will change the fact that, for the third year in a row, UNLV was sent packing after just a 40-minute stay in the NCAA tournament. This time, it was at the hands of 11-seed Colorado at The Pit Thursday night in Albuquerque, N.M., 68-64.
UNLV (26-9) limped out of the gates, and didn’t find its legs until it was too late. The Rebels headed to the halftime locker room down by 11, let the hole grow to 20 points with just over 15 minutes left to play and, despite a furious rally, fell painfully short.
“We put ourselves in a very deep hole, getting down 20,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “And anytime you do something like that, everything has to go perfectly.
“And it almost did.”
Almost doesn’t count, especially not in March, when 25 minutes of shooting poorly, getting dominated up front and losing almost every hustle point available on the floor will do you in 99 times out of 100.
“The first 25 minutes, it was frustrating,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “We couldn’t get any rebounds, couldn’t get any stops, couldn’t hit any shots, and it didn’t make it any easier on us because of those factors.
“We weren’t putting pressure on them, they were really attacking us, we couldn’t make enough plays in the first half.”
While the poor first-half shooting (8-of-29 from the floor, 4-of-16 from deep) drew much of the ire from observers, UNLV’s lack of defensive presence was most alarming, as that became an increasingly disturbing trend down the stretch run of the season.
As UNLV took mostly jumpers from the perimeter, Colorado’s ball movement was crisp in the opening 20 minutes, and they scored however they pleased. First team All-Pac-12 forward Andre Roberson clearly held an early edge in his matchup with Moser, while senior guard Carlon Brown — a noted UNLV killer in his three seasons spent at Utah — teamed with several others to spread the cracks in the Rebels’ leaky D.
It got worse in the opening minutes of the second half, as Austin Dufault buried what looked to be a pair of dagger 3-pointers back-to-back.
Down 20 and armed with poor body language on the bench and fleeting hopes, UNLV had to try something. Anything.
The answer was to go to the guys who Rice knew would put forth the most effort and, well, at least put up a fight. Then, after chipping the lead down to 14 points with a little over eight minutes to go, he went with his best small lineup — Moser, Chace Stanback, Justin Hawkins, Oscar Bellfield and Anthony Marshall — and put on a full-court press, which not only caught a tiring Colorado team off-guard, but also sparked UNLV’s offense.
Over the next six minutes, as UNLV crept back in and started to show some more life, Colorado went scoreless and turned the ball over five times. The Rebels ripped off a 14-0 run with the press and got to within two at 57-55 with 4:19 left.
But when down by that much with that little time left, as Rice alluded to, the room for error is almost non-existent.
And with 2:37 left and down three, Hawkins launched an uncontested 3-pointer that would have tied the game. Instead, the rebound off of the miss was swallowed up by Roberson, who launched a beautiful outlet pass to Brown for a vicious transition dunk.
UNLV never seriously threatened again.
“We never really thought we were out of the game,” Moser said. “It was definitely hard to get over the mental hurdle, even being within two. To try and get that lead back was hard enough. Fighting back was almost the easy part.”
Added Brown: “It was definitely deflating for them, because they were making a great run, making some threes, making some tough shots, getting offensive rebounds. I saw (Roberson) get the rebound, and as soon as I saw it I knew I was gonna take off and just try and dunk with all my might.
“We just knew then ‘OK, lets get back to what we did in the first half and lets win this game.”
And a couple minutes later, there the Rebels were again, sitting in a foreign locker room stunned.
Some fiddled around on their phones, getting an early peek at some vicious feedback being thrown their way on Twitter. Chace Stanback sat with a towel pulled tightly over his face for several minutes. Reggie Smith and Carlos Lopez were sprawled on the floor, hardly moving. Moser and Hawkins went around to the departing seniors, trying to console them and thanking them.
The advice went both ways.
“I’ll just say take every moment and relish it, because it goes by real quick,” fifth-year senior Kendall Wallace said. “I’ve been here five years and it seems like I was just a freshman the other day when we beat Kent State (in the 2008 NCAA tourney). You only get so many opportunities to do this, so take advantage of it while you can. Think about what you have and don’t screw it up.”
Several players spoke over the last week of having a sense of urgency and badly wanting to end the program’s NCAA tournament skid, which now stands at a school-record four games.
But the cold, hard truth is that this team was missing some things that make winning on an even playing field in March tough.
Some have questioned the team’s toughness — sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. The mental makeup of the roster will be different next year, as the likes of Bryce Jones and Khem Birch — who have both shown to be ruthless competitors on the practice floor — become eligible.
“I think we’re a group this year that had a lot of success, and then at some point about two-thirds of the way through the season, had a hard time managing our success,” Rice said. “So I think that’ll be something we have to work very hard on in the offseason going into next season.”
In terms of tangible changes, a couple that Rice highlighted were evident in Thursday’s box score. The Rebels had trouble scoring in the paint until late, and were out-rebounded 46-33 on the night.
“We need to make sure that we continue to establish a low-post, mid-post presence, and it doesn’t have to be a (center), it can be a wing,” Rice said. “The other thing is we need to make sure we do a better job on the defensive boards. It’s so critically important for us to becoming consistent.”
That process begins soon.
Aside from continuing the development of the bevy of veterans he has coming back, Rice still has work to do on the recruiting trail, with one scholarship still remaining for his 2012 class. The top target in that department is Findlay Prep power forward Anthony Bennett, while Bishop Gorman’s Shabazz Muhammad and Findlay center Matt Willms remain in that picture, as well.
For the underclassmen set to return, it’s 51 more weeks until they’re answering the same questions about getting the NCAA tournament monkey off of their backs.
With a lot of work to be done until then.
“I felt this team had all the pieces we needed to make a deep run in the tournament,” Hawkins said. “I think this one hurts the most.”
Inside the numbers …
• Anthony Marshall led UNLV with 15 points, scoring mostly on drives to the bucket. He was 6-of-14 from the floor with four blocks, three rebounds, three steals, three assists and only two turnovers.
• UNLV’s four seniors had varying results in their final game in a Rebel uniform. Oscar Bellfield went out with a solid effort, going for 10 points, eight assists, no turnovers and five rebounds in 31 minutes. Chace Stanback struggled again from the floor, scoring eight points off of just 3-of-12 shooting. Brice Massamba scored five points and grabbed three rebounds, but only played four of his 18 minutes in the second half. Kendall Wallace went 0-for-6 from the floor, with all of his attempts coming from long range.
• UNLV’s 36 3-point attempts were a season high. The team connected on nine of them.
• Mike Moser led UNLV on the glass with nine rebounds to go with his 10 points, but he was out-done by Andre Roberson, who had 12 points and 16 boards.
• Colorado was an efficient 7-of-12 from 3-point range.
• The Buffs were led by freshman guard Askia Booker, who scored 16 points. Austin Dufault scored 14, while Carlon Brown chipped in 12.
• UNLV scored 18 points off of 23 Colorado turnovers.
• Neither team was all that great from the free throw line. UNLV went 9-of-17, while Colorado was 17-of-27.