UNLV suffered through 40 minutes of its worst nightmare on Thursday, as the 3-point-reliant Rebels went ice-cold from long distance and lost a very winnable game to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals, 63-55.
UNLV’s season is now over, with a final record of 17-14 (11-7 MWC) in Marvin Menzies’ third season as head coach.
With their season on the line, the Rebels simply could not connect on the long jumpers that sustained their offense for most of the season. They came into the game as the conference’s second-most accurate 3-point shooting team at 36.8 percent, but missed their first 11 against San Diego State in allowing the Aztecs to take a 26-24 lead at the half.
UNLV “rallied” in the second half, knocking down 3-of-10 from beyond the arc, and the Rebels even managed to tie the score, 47-47, with four minutes left on an Amauri Hardy driving layup.
Defensive miscues haunted the Rebels the rest of the way. San Diego State was clinging to a 52-49 lead with two minutes remaining when point guard Devin Watson got UNLV forward Nick Blair to bite on a pump fake on a long 3-pointer. Watson leaned in to draw contact, and the shooting foul sent him to the line for three shots.
It was the second time on the day Watson earned a foul on a 3-point pump fake, and for the second time he stepped to the line and made all three to double San Diego State’s lead. Watson was 2-of-11 from 3-point range at the time of the foul; he finished 11-of-14 on free throws.
Two possessions later, San Diego State led 55-51 when UNLV freshman Joel Ntambwe drove and missed in the paint. SDSU forward Jalen McDaniels snared the rebound and Ntambwe immediately gave a foul out of frustration, despite the fact that UNLV would have been better off playing defense in that situation.
McDaniels made both free throws to make it 58-51, but UNLV gave itself one final chance when Noah Robotham made his lone 3-pointer of the game to cut it to 58-54 with 1:04 to play. Again the Rebels committed a bad foul, hacking Watson at halfcourt with 50 seconds remaining instead of playing defense. Watson gave them a reprieve by missing both, but Nathan Mensah grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Matt Mitchell at the top of the key. UNLV eschewed another opportunity to play defense and opted to foul Mitchell with 45 seconds remaining; Mitchell made both free throws to ice the game.
UNLV finished 4-of-22 from 3-point range, and it was the team’s most reliable players who were unable to connect. Robotham finished 1-of-7 from deep, Ntambwe went 0-of-3, Hardy went 0-of-2 and Blair went 0-of-2; only Clyburn found success beyond the arc, as the senior closed his career by making 3-of-7 on his way to a team-high 19 points.
A few more made shots would have made all the difference because UNLV played its best defensive game of the season at the other end of the floor. With center Mbacke Diong leading the way (three blocks in 24 minutes), the Rebels held San Diego State to 17-of-57 from the field (29.8 percent).
Menzies gave San Diego State credit for playing tough defense but could hardly believe that his team found a way to lose a game in which it finally figured out how to defend the basket.
“I thought our defense was really good as well,” Menzies said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a game where we held a team to under 30 percent from the field and lost. This is uncharted waters for me. That’s amazing.”
San Diego State now advances to play top-seeded UNR in the tournament semifinals on Friday.
And so begins what could be a long offseason for the Rebels. The first priority will be deciding Menzies’ fate as head coach; he has accumulated a 48-47 regular-season record in his three years, including a 23-31 mark in conference play. His contract runs for two more years at $800,000 per season.
Menzies said he expects to meet with athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois in the coming days to discuss the path forward for UNLV basketball, but he expressed no concern for his own employment.
When asked after the game if he was concerned about his job status, Menzies brushed it off.
“Not at all,” he said.