If you had told UNLV fans prior to today's Mountain West Conference tournament opener against Air Force that the Rebels' fate would come down to Brandon McCoy making a defensive play to save the season, even the most diehard Rebels faithful may have had trouble believing.
And yet, there was McCoy, hustling to chase down a fast break and block a layup from behind early in overtime, jump-starting UNLV to a 97-90 victory.
The win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Rebels (20-12, 8-10 MWC), who now advance to play top-seeded UNR in the MWC quarterfinals at noon Thursday.
McCoy finished with a game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds, but it was his defense — his much maligned defense — that made the difference when the stakes were highest.
After UNLV surrendered an eight-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation, Air Force went into overtime with a ton of momentum. Trevor Lyons converted a 3-point play on the first possession of OT to give the Falcons a 79-76 lead, and UNLV guard Jordan Johnson missed a jumper that led to a breakaway attempt for Lyons.
Rebels forward Shakur Juiston ran Lyons down from behind and made a tremendous play by blocking his layup attempt, but AFA wing Lavelle Scottie trailed the play and had an opportunity for an easy putback. McCoy never gave up on the play, however, and flew in at the last moment to reject Scottie's layup, denying Air Force two easy second-chance points that would have put UNLV in an overtime hole.
Johnson hit a 3-pointer to tie the game on the ensuing possession, and that started a game-clinching 15-2 run for the Rebels over the next three minutes.
McCoy finished with three rejections, including the hustle block that turned the tide.
"I just wanted to win," McCoy said. "It was winning time and I saw Shakur block the shot and I knew Scottie was going to get the rebound. I just went to contest, and luckily I got the block."
UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies has spent most of the season's second half trying to coax better interior defense out of his big men, and he was relieved to see McCoy and Juiston come through when it mattered most.
"Seriously, I was glad they were playing like it was one-and-done time," Menzies said. "Those were energy plays; those were effort plays. A little additional passion, understanding the dynamics of what is necessary to win in this kind of environment, and they showed it. So that was good."
Juiston finished with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Jovan Mooring tallied 17 points and six assists, while Johnson had 10 points and 12 assists.
While McCoy's block proved to be the turnaround moment for the Rebels, the defensive flaws that plagued the team during its season-closing losing streak were still evident against Air Force. The Falcons made 13 of 27 from 3-point range (48.1 percent) and shot 46.4 percent from the field as a team.
The efficient scoring of McCoy and Juiston helped UNLV build a 44-36 advantage on points in the paint and mitigated some of Air Force's 3-point production.
With the score tied 73-73 and just under two minutes left in regulation, Johnson hit Juiston on a pick-and-roll and Juiston finished with a loud dunk to put the Rebels up by a bucket. After a defensive stop, Johnson hit one of two from the free-throw line to make it 76-73 with 32 seconds to play.
Air Force's Frank Toohey got loose under the basket on the next possession, and he was fouled while attempting a layup. McCoy was called for goaltending on the shot, and Toohey hit the free throw to tie the game.
UNLV's final possession was muddled, and Johnson shuffled the ball to Mooring with seconds on the clock. Mooring's desperation heave from beyond the top of the key missed at the buzzer, and Air Force went into overtime thinking upset.
Instead, McCoy got in the way, and now the Rebels will get another shot at in-state rival UNR on Thursday.
UNLV won in Reno in the first meeting, though that result carries an asterisk, as UNR star wing Caleb Martin missed the game with a foot injury. When the two teams played at full strength at the Thomas & Mack Center on Feb. 28, UNR won in dominant fashion, 101-75.
If UNLV's season is to continue beyond Thursday, the Rebels will need more defense from their big men and more effort in general.
"There's no X's and O's when we go against them," Mooring said. "It's just about who wants it more. They know us pretty well and we know them pretty well; whichever team comes ready to play is going to win the game."