As UNLV crumbled late in Saturday’s 61-59 loss at Boise State, T.J. Otzelberger had to be feeling like he was watching a replay. And there was nothing he could do to stop it.
At Colorado State. At UNR. Now at Boise State. UNLV has consistently come up empty in the clutch this season, and Saturday was the latest chapter in that book of late-game collapses as Boise closed on an 11-4 to hand the scarlet and gray one of their more anguished losses of the season.
After watching yet another lead disappear in the final minutes, Otzelberger stressed the need for leadership to emerge from the ranks of the players if UNLV is ever going to figure out how to beat a good team in a tight contest.
“Having leadership and experience to command the game late is really important, and that’s something I feel like we end up in that spot and we’re not getting it,” Otzelberger said. “Whether it’s the free throws, whether it’s managing those possessions late, either way, that’s not happening.”
UNLV played well for the first 30-plus minutes and appeared positioned to steal a defining win until things went very wrong down the stretch.
After Bryce Hamilton knocked down consecutive mid-range jumpers and David Jenkins hit a middie of his own, UNLV had a 55-50 lead with four minutes remaining. The scarlet and gray didn’t score from the field again until there was 13 seconds on the clock; they shot 1-of-6 to end the game, with a turnover and two missed free throws during that time.
“Unfortunately for us, down the stretch our lack of leadership, point guard play, experience, whatever you want to call it, comes back and haunts us,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve got to do a better job managing possessions late and sharing the basketball.”
Despite all the miscues in the final minutes, UNLV still had a chance to win.
UNLV trailed, 59-56, and had possession with 30 seconds left. Instead of looking for a tying 3-pointer, Hamilton drove into traffic and hoisted an unmakeable floater that bounced off the rim and into the hands of Boise State center Mladen Armus. After Armus made 1-of-2 from the free throw line, David Jenkins canned a 3 with 13 seconds left to bring UNLV within a single point.
Boise went for a long pass on the inbound, but Hamilton read the play and made the interception in the backcourt. Instead of driving for a potential go-ahead shot, he hot-potatoed it to Caleb Grill, who drove into a crowd and missed a long runner as the clock ticked down.
Otzelberger had to watch helplessly as the final chaotic possession unfolded because UNLV was out of timeouts. The coach said after the game that he didn’t have time to communicate anything to the players on the floor after the steal, but that he had faith in Hamilton (and Grill) to do the right thing.
“The ball is in Bryce’s hands,” Otzelberger said. “I trust in him to make the play. I like the fact that Caleb attacked that close-out. Caleb is going to be a great player for us. He’s doing a lot out there for us right now. I trust him trying to get to his spot and make that play.”
Hamilton finished with 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting. One game after Otzelberger pressed his leading scorer for doing most of his work in garbage time, Hamilton managed just six points in the second half on Saturday and none in the last five minutes.
Otzelberger obviously would have preferred to have a timeout to use on the final possession, but he felt he had to use them tactically throughout the game in order to keep Boise State from pulling away.
“It happened in Colorado State, too,” Otzelberger said. “I’m using timeouts to try to get guys rest and keep us in the game and stop runs and reemphasize things. It’d be nice to have extra timeouts late, but when you’re on the road I think my job more than anything is to keep that focus and keep teaching those lessons and make sure we’re doing things we need to get to that point.”
Jenkins led UNLV with 19 points off the bench (7-of-12 FGs, 4-of-6 3FGs). Grill added 11 points in 39 minutes.
Boise State forward Derrick Alston hit six 3-pointers and scored 27 points to lead all scorers.
UNLV is now 8-11 on the season and 5-7 in the Mountain West with four games remaining on the schedule.