For the fifth straight game, UNLV allowed an opponent to shred its defense for easy baskets, and for the fifth straight game, the Rebels lost, as Utah State handed them a 79-67 defeat in the regular-season finale for both teams.
UNLV (19-12, 8-10), which was at one point just a few weeks ago tied for third place in the Mountain West, will now head into next week's conference tournament as the No. 8 seed.
And if the season had been a little longer, there's no telling how far the Rebels could have dropped, as their defensive issues have dragged the team from quasi-contender status to being in serious danger of getting knocked out by Air Force in Wednesday's play-in round.
If the Rebels defend Air Force the way they defended Utah State on Saturday — or any of their previous four opponents, for that matter — they will lose. Utah State made 50.0 percent of its field goal attempts (27-of-54), with 16 of the baskets being layups and dunks. The Aggies also buried 11-of-27 from 3-point range.
UNLV made just one concerted push all night. After heading into halftime trailing, 42-30, the Rebels opened the second half with a 14-4 run to pull within two points. Utah State was staggered, but the Aggies recovered and made four layups and two 3-pointers in a five-minute span to extend the lead back to 60-50 with 10 minutes to play.
UNLV never challenged again.
Junior forward Shakur Juiston (12 points, nine rebounds) said the Rebels' inability to keep getting defensive stops was the difference.
"We just left it all on the floor in the first couple minutes of the half, and when they came back and started making big shots, it was like an energy downer," Juiston said. "You feel like you're playing great 'D' and defending very well, and they just come and hit a big shot."
Utah State scored at a rate of 1.162 points per possession, making the Aggies the fifth straight team to score more than 1.0 points per possession against UNLV.
Koby McEwen led Utah State with 18 points (4-of-9 3FGs), while Sam Merrill chipped in 15 (3-of-6 3FGs).
With UNLV's defensive woes threatening to torpedo the season, head coach Marvin Menzies said it's too late to make vast changes to the scheme, so it will be up to the players to make it work when they take the court against Air Force in a win-or-go-home situation.
"We're not going to change anything at this stage of the year," Menzies said. "We just have to do it better. It's proven to work over the years, but it's got to be executed at a pretty high level to be efficient.
"When they do it right, it's good," he continued. "We did it pretty well in spurts against the Aggies tonight, it's just that we don't do it consistently enough. The youthfulness of this team rears its ugly head from time to time. Part of the process. It's a painful part but it's almost like you have to go through it, but you don't want to."
Freshman center Brandon McCoy was the most productive Rebel on the offensive end, as he posted 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Freshman forward Tervell Beck contributed 12 points on 6-of-10 from the field.
Long-distance shooting was once again a weak spot; UNLV made 3-of-13 from 3-point range, including a 2-of-9 showing in the second half. Senior guard Jovan Mooring was 1-of-7 from beyond the arc, making him 1-of-14 over the last two games and 4-of-29 during the five-game losing streak.
As hard as it may be to believe, especially after UNLV's strong run midway through the conference schedule, the Rebels are now on the verge of a supremely disappointing finish to the season. A five-game skid to close out the year would have been unthinkable at that time, and the reality of a disastrous six-game streak is now all too real.
Menzies is confident his players will do everything they can to avoid that indignity.
"Tough pill to swallow because it's the fifth pill in a row," Menzies said. "I thought the Aggies played well, so you've got to tip your hat off to them and say, 'Hey, we've got to look forward to this next part of the season,' which is the postseason. It's a brand-new opportunity and hopefully a brand-new beginning. These guys have to dig down deep and make sure they're mentally and emotionally in the right place, and they put these games to bed so that they can move forward. And I think they'll do that."