UNLV falters late in home loss to Fresno State

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Steve Marcus

UNV Rebels talk as they wait a game against Fresno State Bulldogs to resume at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. From left: Caleb Grill (3),Moses Wood (1), David Jenkins Jr. (5), Cheikh Mbacke Diong (34) and Bryce Hamilton (13).

Wed, Feb 24, 2021 (11:11 p.m.)

Twenty-two games into the season, UNLV still hasn’t figured out how to win. That much was evident on Wednesday, as Fresno State came into the Thomas & Mack Center and dispatched a scarlet and gray squad that couldn’t get out of its own way down the stretch, 67-64.

UNLV had a chance to tie the game on the final possession after Fresno State guard Isaiah Hill made a free throw with 3.6 seconds left, and Bulldogs coach Justin Hutson even did his old school a favor by calling timeout to allow T.J. Otzelberger to set up a play (UNLV was out of timeouts). Caleb Grill caught the ensuing inbound pass near midcourt, but his pass ahead to David Jenkins was off the mark and time expired as Jenkins lunged to corral the ball.

UNLV is now a disappointing 10-12 on the season and 7-8 in Mountain West play.

More than three months into the 2020-21 campaign, and with just three contests remaining on the schedule, UNLV appears to be a team no closer to understanding what it takes to win than they did on opening night, when they were handed a blowout home loss by Montana State.

It wasn’t just the final possession that doomed UNLV. They committed too many fouls (Fresno State made 17 free throws, UNLV made nine), got beat from beyond the arc (Fresno State made 10 3-pointers, UNLV made three) and missed too many key free throws (Nick Blake and Mbacke Diong both missed the front end of 1-and-1s late in the second half).

Everything that losing teams do, UNLV did.

Otzelberger said the failure to execute the fundamentals of the game was UNLV’s biggest issue.

“We had a lot of unnecessary fouls that put them at the foul line late, and then some key offensive rebounds they scored late,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve got to be more sound and fundamental in finishing those plays and doing the things we work on every day. That wasn’t the case here tonight, that’s why we came out with a loss.”

Bryce Hamilton led UNLV with 27 points, including several clutch baskets in the final eight minutes to keep his team alive, but the junior guard also finished with zero assists. His up-and-down willingness to share the ball has been a point of consternation for Otzelberger all season.

UNLV managed just three field goals over the final eight minutes, all on Hamilton isolation plays.

Otzelberger said that wasn’t good enough.

“Bryce made some big plays to get us going and then we kind of stalled out,” Otzelberger said. “We’ve got to do a great job getting movement and cutting and screening and creating action. We spent too much time standing. You can’t have that offensively late.”

Sophomore guard Deon Stroud finished with 18 points for Fresno State, and it was his ridiculous, 360-degree breakaway dunk midway through the second half that brought the Bulldogs back to life. UNLV led 48-42 with 12 minutes to play and had possession, but Stroud picked Blake’s pocket for a clean steal and went the other way. Instead of a more conventional finish, Stroud elevated and did a complete spin in the air before throwing down a one-handed jam.

UNLV was rattled by the display of athleticism, and Fresno embarked on an 8-2 run to seize control.

Hamilton tried to swing the game back in UNLV’s favor by scoring seven straight points to give the scarlet and gray a 61-60 lead with less than two minutes to play, but Stroud answered with a mid-range jumper and a driving layup to put the Bulldogs back in front, 64-61, with 35 seconds remaining.

Free throws were then exchanged, setting up UNLV’s ill-fated final possession.

The two teams will reconvene on Friday to close out the series.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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