With smoke from the fireworks having barely cleared the shot clocks and fans still raising the decibel level, UNLV forced an Arizona turnover and sped out on a fast break with future NBA players trailing on both sides.
These were the types of moments Marvin Menzies imagined when he took the UNLV coaching job 20 months ago. These were the types of moments that filled the Rebels’ 91-88 overtime loss to Arizona Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
From the pregame festivities to Jovan Mooring’s half court heave at the overtime buzzer falling short, the atmosphere and athleticism on display gave the game’s stakes feel much higher than they were in actuality.
“Every head coach when he takes over a program has a vision and you have to put it together in baby steps and you have to have a strategic mission of how to get there,” Menzies explained in the post-game press conference.
He’s the first to admit that vision wasn’t quite realized on Saturday night, describing the defeat as a “lost opportunity” on multiple occasions.
But it was tantalizingly close.
Menzies’ 40th regular-season game at UNLV was the closest peek of what his tenure could bring to the Rebels if it goes according to plan. It provided an even better view than UNLV’s blowout win over Utah 10 days ago, considering this was on its home floor against a team that no one would be surprised to see reach the Final Four.
The Rebels were a couple botched possessions away from being declared, “back.” All things considered, that’s not a bad place to be for a program that’s been a laughingstock for the majority of the last two years.
Looking past the sting of a loss where UNLV led for more than 30 minutes of game time reveals it’s not much of a setback at all. Any suggestion of the Rebels getting an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament was delusional anyway.
They were always going to need to win the Mountain West Conference tournament to be included in the field, and coming out of battle with the Wildcats hungry could help a push in that direction.
“We didn’t win the game and these kids came here to win, so we’ve got to tighten some things — keep growing, keep getting better and we will win going forward,” Menzies said.
There are certainly some areas where they need to get much better. The starting backcourt struggled collectively for a second straight game, with Mooring, Jordan Johnson and Kris Clyburn combining to shoot 5-for-21 from the field.
Getting only mediocre three-point looks from Mooring and Tervell Beck on potential game-winning possessions in the final 10 seconds of regulation and overtime, respectively, is inexcusable.
But there were encouraging signs too. Turns out a little adversity doesn’t faze freshman Brandon McCoy, who once again proved his five-star recruiting grade somehow didn’t go far enough in illustrating his talent.
McCoy’s much-anticipated matchup with fellow freshman lottery-pick DeAndre Ayton similarly exceeded expectations. If McCoy vs. Ayton were a fight, it would likely have been scored a draw.
Ayton got the better of McCoy early, hitting six of his first 10 shots for 13 first-half points. Ayton then missed six of his next seven field-goal attempts, however, as McCoy started to bother him defensively.
He heated up down the stretch, but so did McCoy. Ayton’s team won, but his stat line was slightly less impressive with 28 points off of 12-for-23 shooting.
McCoy put in a game- and career-high 31 points while going 13-for-17 from the field. He justly bit back when asked about how hard it was to stop Ayton.
“It was tough for him to stop me, first of all,” McCoy said. “But DeAndre, I grew up with him. We’ve known each other since I was 13 years old. We slept on the same bunk beds, so I knew him before basketball. That’s one of my brothers and he had a good game today.”
The most electric stretch of the game came in the final two minutes of regulation when Ayton and McCoy took turns imposing their wills to combine to score on four straight trips down the floor.
It was a back-and-forth that might be mentioned for years to come when the two childhood friends inevitably meet in the NBA. McCoy would be described as the underdog right now, scrapping for a team that’s trying to regain national relevance against Ayton’s side that’s already entrenched on top of it.
But if Menzies’ vision comes to fruition, the matchup will be looked back upon more as a pitting of a pair of powerhouse programs. And, despite the loss, Menzies’ vision was in its clearest focus yet against Arizona.
“That’s inspirational to see because I know what this place looks like,” Menzies said of Saturday’s environment. “I’ve been here and I’ve seen it. I saw it tonight again. I saw a glimpse of what it could be on a regular basis. When this place is engaged at a high level from the community, man, you’re up 10 points after the fireworks and it’s real.”