Midway through Wednesday’s game against San Diego State, the Rebels were officially locked into a play-in game in the Mountain West tournament when Fresno State’s win over Air Force went final. It basically rendered the result of UNLV’s biggest rivalry game moot, except for ancillary bottom-four seeding purposes. The stakes were low. But still, you never would have known it by the way the injury-depleted Rebels battled for 40 minutes before falling, 60-58.
The Rebels’ effort was remarkable, considering the circumstances and the opponent. Already thin coming into the game, UNLV lost Patrick McCaw to a head injury early in the second half when he caught an inadvertent headbutt from Chris Wood. Down to six available scholarship players after that, the Rebels still nearly pulled it out before wearing down late.
In the end, UNLV was doomed by 11 turnovers, one of which led to a Trey Kell breakaway layup to give SDSU a 55-53 lead with 1:14 remaining. For the game, San Diego State racked up six steals and scored 16 points off turnovers. And UNLV had no defensive answer for JJ O’Brien, who sliced through the interior to score a career-high 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
Chris Wood paced the Rebels with 10 points and 16 rebounds, while Dwayne Morgan was the surprise leading scorer with 13 points in 14 minutes. Cody Doolin also chipped in an efficient 12 points (6-of-10 FGs) while notching four assists and zero turnovers.
UNLV is now 16-14 on the season, and 7-10 in Mountain West play. The Rebels will finish the regular season on Saturday at San Jose State before gearing up for the conference tournament play-in round on Wednesday.
San Diego State lives off its defensive pressure, and the Aztecs applied just enough of it to win this game. Their full-court press produced four turnovers in the first four minutes of the game before UNLV had a chance to settle down, and their aggressive, trapping defense made the deciding play late to swing the contest.
Tied 53-53 with just more than a minute to play, UNLV had possession and was looking to take the lead. Chris Wood attempted to drive from the top of the key, but a help defender quickly double-teamed him as soon as he put the ball on the floor, and Wood forced an off-balance pass to Jordan Cornish in the far corner. The pass was off-target, and Cornish had to lean over the baseline, catch it and blindly throw the ball back toward halfcourt in an attempt to save it from going out of bounds. SDSU guard Trey Kell stepped in front of that pass and took off the other way, and Cody Doolin was helpless to stop the resulting 2-on-1 break. Kell caught a return pass and laid it in to give San Diego State the lead.
All told, UNLV only committed 11 turnovers, which is a number Dave Rice can probably live with. But when it came time to make the deciding play of the game, the Rebels couldn’t handle SDSU’s defensive pressure.
Freshman guard Patrick McCaw has been a huge bright spot for the Rebels this year, but his season could be in jeopardy after he took a wrong-place, wrong-time headbutt from Chris Wood and was forced to leave the game. McCaw went to the locker room and returned a few minutes later, walking slowly. He spent the rest of the game sitting on the end of the bench.
In his postgame press conference, Dave Rice said McCaw was being treated for “concussion-like symptoms,” and that a full diagnosis wouldn’t be made until Thursday. If McCaw does in fact have a concussion, he’d be out for Saturday’s game at San Jose State and probably out for Wednesday’s play-in game as well.
If McCaw is sidelined, UNLV would be down to six available scholarship players. Rice said Dwayne Morgan will practice at small forward in the coming days in preparation for life without McCaw. Morgan hasn’t practiced at small forward all season, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
No D for JJ
UNLV’s interior defense has been a strength at times this season, but JJ O’Brien was not intimidated by the presence of Goodluck Okonoboh and Chris Wood. In fact, the senior forward seemed to relish his matchups with the Rebels’ big men, as he barreled into the lane time and time again on his way to a game-high 22 points.
Every one of O’Brien’s 11 field goals came in the lane, and San Diego State outscored UNLV 34-28 on points in the paint. With less than 30 seconds to play and SDSU nursing a 53-55 lead, the Aztecs put the game in O’Brien’s hands, and he delivered. The 6-foot-7 senior drove down the right side and finished over Okonoboh to make it a two-possession game.
Rice tried to mix up his defenses. UNLV played man-to-man for most of the game but tossed in a few possessions of zone in the first half, and Wood, Okonoboh and Morgan all took turns on O’Brien. None of it worked.
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