Losing back-to-back games the way the Rebels have — letting very winnable contests against Northern Iowa and Arizona slip away in the final minutes — can put strain on a team. Even a program in the midst of a remarkable turnaround season like UNLV can be susceptible to finger-pointing in the wake of such frustrating defeats.
After Saturday’s home loss to Arizona, however, the Rebels didn’t go down that road. In fact, it seemed as though they made a concerted effort to rally around the player who has drawn the most ire from the fan base in the wake of the mini losing streak.
Senior guard Jovan Mooring missed a potential game-winning jump shot at the end of regulation against Arizona just three days after shooting 3-of-17 and committing a critical foul in the closing seconds in the loss at Northern Iowa. But after the most recent dispiriting defeat, his teammates and his coach had his back.
Junior forward Shakur Juiston said he has full confidence in Mooring in clutch situations.
“We had faith in our senior guard Jovan Mooring,” Juiston said. “He’s a great shooter, a great player, a great leader. We just gave it to him, and this is his team, so he deserved to end it the right way. It was a good shot, it just came up short.”
Head coach Marvin Menzies said the play, which saw UNLV inbound from the far end of the court with nine seconds to play, was designed for Mooring to dribble the length of the floor, use a high screen and drive into the lane. Mooring improvised at the last second and instead pulled up for a long 3-pointer from the right wing.
When Menzies arrived to the post-game press conference, he preempted any questions about the play and proactively came to Mooring’s defense, even though he veered from the play call.
“Jojo’s 3, people are probably going to discuss that, but let’s put that to bed,” Menzies said. “The play was drawn up maybe to get something going to the basket, but in the heat of the moment you’ve got a kid who has to make a decision and his decision was to pull it up — for whatever reason. We’ll go back and we’ll teach him statistically why we want you to get to the rim, why we call that exact set, and he’ll grow from it. He’ll get better.”
Mooring doesn’t have free reign during what Menzies calls “Winning time.” Against Southern Utah on Nov. 25, Menzies sat his senior leader for the final seven minutes of the game, ostensibly because of Mooring’s shot selection.
Despite what happened against Southern Utah and in the final minutes of the last two games, however, Mooring remains an integral part of UNLV’s return to prominence. He is the team’s third-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, and his 16 3-pointers are most on the squad.
Defensively, he sets the tone with his toughness and willingness to put his body on the line. Opponents are averaging just 0.71 points per possession when defended by Mooring (second-best on the team), and he forces turnovers on a ridiculous 20.3 percent of possessions. He also leads the Rebels with seven charges taken, which no doubt endears him to his teammates.
That’s why they stood behind him after he missed a shot against Arizona that would have given UNLV its best win in years.
The Rebels have confronted adversity on the court for the first time this season, but there’s been no infighting, no blaming others, and no selfish lobbying to take the final shot. It seems the Rebels themselves want Mooring to be the man with the game on the line.
Junior Kris Clyburn was with the Rebels last season, when Mooring dominated down the stretch in wins over New Mexico and Utah State. He also saw Mooring hit the biggest shot of the season, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime against Air Force; As a follow-up, Mooring then drilled the game-winning jumper with three seconds left in OT.
Clyburn said he and his teammates feel good about Mooring’s ability to come through when it matters most, even though he was unable to connect to win the Arizona game.
“Those are shots he shoots,” Clyburn said. “Those are shots he makes. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him shooting that shot. Coach Menzies might not have thought it was a great shot, but we all know that he’s a great player, so when he takes those shots we all believe it’s going in. So we’re just going to live with that.”
And if UNLV finds itself in a close game Tuesday against Oral Roberts at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, don’t be surprised if Menzies calls Mooring’s number again.
“I put the ball in his hand for a reason,” Menzies said. “I love him to death. He’s one of my kids. I’ll always love him. He’s in pain right now, but he’ll push through. He’ll be fine.”