Spending New Year’s Eve in Laramie, Wyo., and its minus-12 degree temperatures is not exactly at the top of most people’s bucket lists. But that was the task the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels faced on Wednesday night when they opened Mountain West Conference play against Wyoming.
The 76-71 loss was what many expected for a young and inexperienced UNLV team making its first trip to the Front Range. But Dave Rice’s squad had plenty of reason for optimism as it rang in 2015 a few hours later after busing to their hotel in Denver.
The Rebels (9-4, 0-1) acquitted themselves very well in the loss, shooting 55.1 percent from the floor including 10-of-21 3-pointers. Sophomore forward Christian Wood, the reigning Mountain West and national player of the week, scored UNLV’s first 19 points – that’s right, 19 consecutive points against arguably the league’s best defensive team – en route to a career-high 29 points. And it wasn’t until Riley Grabau sank two free throws with 12.2 seconds left to put the Pokes up by four that the crowd of 6,011 at Arena-Auditorium could exhale and enjoy a little Cotton Eye Joe.
“We’re obviously very disappointed with the outcome of the game because we played well enough to win the game and we played hard enough for 40 minutes to win the game,” Rice said afterward on his post-game radio show. “Every single run they made we answered. We made big plays. We made extra passes. We got offensive rebounds. We got defensive stops, and we just didn’t make quite enough plays.”
The 6-foot-11 Wood continued his outstanding play, connecting on 10-of-15 field goals, including 4-of-6 3-pointers, and sank all five of his free throws. He also grabbed seven rebounds which tied teammate Jelan Kendrick for the game-high.
Rashad Vaughn was the only other Rebel to finish in double figures with 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting but Patrick McCaw added nine points and three steals and Cody Doolin finished with eight points, five assists and just one turnover.
Larry Nance Jr. matched Wood with 29 points to lead Wyoming (12-2, 1-0) while Derek Cooke (14), Grabau (12) and Josh Adams (10) also finished in double figures. The Cowboys, who shot 53.8 percent from the floor and had 17 assists, forced 13 UNLV turnovers while committing just seven and finished with a key 23-13 edge in points off turnovers.
UNLV flies home Thursday before heading off to play No. 13 Kansas on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. PT on CBS.