For most of the season, it would have been hard to imagine UNLV winning on a night that saw star big men Brandon McCoy and Shakur Juiston combine to shoot 4-of-19 from the field. But this Rebels team appears to be turning a corner, and on Wednesday night its senior guards picked up the slack in an 81-73 win over Air Force.
In what turned into a grinder of a second half, it was Jovan Mooring and Jordan Johnson who led the way as UNLV won its third straight game to improve to 19-7 on the season and 8-5 in Mountain West play. Mooring scored a game-high 24 points on efficient 7-of-12 shooting, while Johnson posted 16 points and six assists.
After an early double-digit lead was cut to one point with less than four minutes to play, Mooring scored on a backdoor layup to give the Rebels some breathing room. When Air Force closed to within 67-66 a minute later, Mooring pulled up and buried a long 3-pointer from the top of the key to extend the lead to four.
UNLV followed up that shot with a 7-0 run to pull away for good.
Mooring scored 21 of his points in the second half, connecting on 4-of-7 from 3-point range. After the game, he said playing with poise in the pivotal moments made the difference.
"We've been here before, we've been in those situations all season," Mooring said. "It's just making the right decisions."
The game was almost a cloned version of UNLV's last contest, an 85-70 home win over Wyoming on Saturday. The Rebels jumped out to a 19-2 lead in that one, only to see Wyoming rally to take the lead early in the second half. UNLV kept its cool and eventually regained control, and it was the same against Air Force.
UNLV stacked up a 13-2 lead in the opening minutes, but too many turnovers (18 for the game) allowed the Falcons to hang around and eventually pull within a single possession on several occasions.
But Mooring and Johnson protected the lead, and the Rebels held on in a game they may not have won earlier in the season.
Mooring said the team is tougher mentally at this point in the year and more equipped to rise to the challenge.
"I think we're definitely getting better," Mooring said. "In the last couple games we've jumped out to big leads and teams have made their runs to come back, and some have taken the lead or cut it to one or two points. Early in the season, we probably would have given this lead away and lost the game, but we've matured a lot. We know how to stick to the game plan and finish games now."
UNLV could have put the game away sooner, but McCoy and Juiston suffered through rare cold shooting nights at the same time. Juiston came into the contest shooting 66.5 percent for the season, but he finished off just 2-of-8 from the field, including several chances right at the rim. McCoy was a 58-8-percent shooter entering the game, but he too struggled to convert from close range and finished 2-of-11 from the floor.
Despite their off-shooting games, the big men still contributed. Juiston collected 12 rebounds and three assists, while McCoy muscled his way to the free-throw line (6-of-8) and finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. Freshman forward Tervell Beck set a new career high for the second game in a row, this time tallying 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Head coach Marvin Menzies gave a nod to Air Force's defense and didn't seem concerned about his twin towers repeating this performance anytime soon.
"I give Air Force credit for that," Menzies said. "They've got a guy in front of 'em, and they've got a guy behind 'em, and they wall up and defensively they're really sound. And then they trap 'em when they do catch it. Both of those guys made some really good plays passing out of it."
Now, UNLV is in the position of being the "hot team" entering the final stretch of the Mountain West season. The Rebels have won three straight and five of their last six, including a road victory at first-place UNR on Feb. 7.
The Rebels will play next at San Diego State on Saturday. UNLV won the first meeting between the two teams, 88-78 at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 27.
Menzies said that while the win over Air Force may not have been aesthetically pleasing, he thinks his team is well-positioned for a final push.
"I do sense that they're growing and they are steadily on the incline right now," Menzies said. "And even in a game where the fans in the stands may say, 'Gosh, we should have blown this team out,' I disagree. I think we gutted out a really good win against a team that's playing well."