What to make of UNLV's 94-56 loss at San Diego State on Saturday?
It's a question the Rebels started contemplating the moment the buzzer sounded on their worst performance of the season.
The Rebels came into Viejas Arena on a roll and playing their best, winners of three in a row and five of their last six — a stretch which included a decisive 88-78 win over this same SDSU team just a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. And UNLV hadn't lost a game by double digits all season — heck, the Rebels hadn't even trailed by double digits very often — so Saturday's wire-to-wire blowout defeat was the ultimate outlier.
After the game, which was decided by the greatest margin of victory in the history of the series between the two teams, the UNLV players didn't seem disappointed. They were shocked and confused.
"I don't know if it was the early [1 p.m.] start or just lack of focus," said senior shooting guard Jovan Mooring. "[San Diego State] came out ready to play. Obviously, they had a fire to them from what happened to them when they played us at the Mack, but they came out ready to play and they wouldn't miss. I think eventually we were just like, 'What can we do?' Every shot was going in. Just one of those games."
"I wish I could rewind this game and go out there and play again right now," junior forward Shakur Juiston said. "But it can't happen."
No, the Rebels only got one shot at it on Saturday, and they did not show up. Playing in front of a frenzied crowd, San Diego State blitzed UNLV early and jumped out to a 10-2 lead. After separate 9-0, 8-0 and 12-0 runs, the Aztecs pushed the margin to 48-28 at the half.
The second half only got worse, as UNLV floundered on both ends of the court. Offensively, the Rebels looked rushed and committed 19 momentum-killing turnovers (which SDSU converted into 29 points). Defensively, UNLV gave San Diego State plenty of open space under the basket, and the Aztecs racked up 42 points in the paint while shooting 50.7 percent.
SDSU forwards Jalen McDaniels and Malik Pope played with confidence and attacked the Rebels' interior defense relentlessly, combining for 35 points on 16-of-27 shooting.
By the time freshman forward Matt Mitchell (game-high 21 points) splashed a 3-pointer to cap the scoring with 1:02 to play, the Rebels had long since checked out.
Mooring put the blame on himself and his teammates for not bringing the kind of intensity this game demanded.
"Most of it is on us," he said. "We came out real flat. You come out flat like that against a good team at home, they'll have this type of game."
Mooring led UNLV with 16 points and three assists. Juiston scored 12 points, but also committed six turnovers. Freshman center Brandon McCoy was held to nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Now, the Rebels (19-9, 8-6 MWC) are left pondering how they can move on from such a loss this late in the year. With four games remaining in the regular season, is there enough time to fix what went wrong on Saturday and tune up for the conference tournament?
Set against that backdrop, Wednesday's home game against Fresno State should reveal a lot about the Rebels' mental toughness.
"We've just got to stay connected," Juiston said. "Stay together, don't point any fingers, don't show hatred toward one another — the coaches or the players. We've just got to take this and learn from it and hopefully Wednesday we'll turn it around."
Head coach Marvin Menzies wasn't so concerned about the lingering effects of the loss, but more about the X's and O's that led to such a beating.
"If you have good team chemistry and good brotherhood, I don't think we have too much to worry about in that vein," Menzies said. "We know we did not play up to our capabilities, and we know [San Diego State] had a lot to do with it. So we've got to figure out the basketball stuff. I think we'll be fine."