Runnin’ Rebels survive slow Cowboys offense
It didn’t take long to find the words to describe what happened on Saturday.
“It was real ugly,” said Runnin’ Rebels guard Kevin Olekaibe.
Saturday’s game was so ugly that it came down to the final possession. But Larry Nance Jr.’s five-foot hook shot rolled out as time expired to give UNLV (16-8, 7-4) a 48-46 win over Wyoming at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the Rebels’ lowest-scoring win since 2009.
This was the kind of game Wyoming wanted to play, though.
Coming into Saturday, the Cowboys were the sixth-slowest team in the nation. They also were near the bottom in possessions per game at just over 63.
But head coach Dave Rice was pleased with his team’s patience by not trying to force the issue offensively, especially after shooting 33 percent in the first half and leading only 22-20.
“It was just weird because, usually, we don’t just score over 20 in a half,” Olekaibe said.
Rice also noted Wyoming shooting 50 percent from the floor in the first half, limiting UNLV’s transition opportunities, as a reason why the first half was so close. The Cowboys also turned the ball over 10 times, but UNLV only turned those into four points.
“I thought they disrupted our rhythm a little bit in the first half,” Rice said.
Rice’s halftime message was to get the ball in the paint. Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith both had quiet first halves offensively. Birch got it going, scoring eight points in the final 20 minutes.
Up 38-34 with 6:43 remaining, Olekaibe hit a 3-pointer, giving UNLV its largest lead at seven. Wyoming wouldn’t go away, though. Cowboys guard Riley Grabau hit two 3-pointers, including one in the left corner with 1:05 remaining to make it a two-point game.
Rice knew the ball was going to Nance on the final possession with 15.5 seconds left. He also had confidence in his best defender, Birch, that he can go one-on-one with Nance. Wyoming’s leading scorer and rebounder got a good look over Birch, but it rolled out.
“We anticipated they’d go to Nance inside. They’re good at that,” Rice said. “But we were not going to give up an open three. We were going to leave it up to the guy who was the Defensive Player of the Year in the conference last year, and who I think should be the Defensive Player of the Year again.”
Nance, averaging 16 points and eight rebounds a game coming in, was dealing with a sore left ankle all second half, limiting him to 12 points and nine rebounds.
He didn’t play like he was hurt, and surely UNLV didn’t notice that either.
“I didn’t know he was hurt,” Smith said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen him play so I didn’t know how he walked or anything like that.”
Now, the Rebels get a rare week off and prepare for a task that hasn’t been easy for almost every conference team this season: Make arguably the hardest road trip in the conference to Utah State on Feb. 15.
The Rebels also control their own destiny, sitting third in the Mountain West. In order to stay there, another game of less than 100 combined points Saturday may not be best.
“We combined for 94 points,” Rice joked. “That’s a pretty exciting deal.”