Rebels inch closer toward early MW Tourney start

UNLV took another step closer to starting Mountain West Tournament play a day earlier than expected with another narrow loss Saturday afternoon at Air Force.

Despite a career-high 31 points, nine rebounds and five blocks by Christian Wood and 20 second half points by Patrick McCaw, the Rebels (14-11, 5-7) fell two full games behind Fresno State and Utah State (both 7-5 in Mountain West play) in the battle for sixth place and a first round tourney bye with a 76-75 loss to the Falcons (12-13, 5-9).

UNLV finds itself all alone in eighth place in the Mountain West with three weeks and six games remaining. If the tournament were to start today, the Rebels would play Air Force again in the first round — also known as the play-in games — on Wednesday, March 11 at noon with the winner coming back the following day to take on the regular season conference champion – likely San Diego State — at noon in the quarterfinals.

That would also mean UNLV would have to win four games in the span of four days to earn the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Saturday’s loss was UNLV’s second by one point in Mountain West play. The Rebels also have two losses by two points and another in overtime at Boise State, which visits the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday night at 8 p.m.

Saturday’s loss really wasn’t as close as the final score. Wood sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer that was meaningless to everyone except those holding a betting ticket. The Falcons led by as many as five points with 43 seconds left after sophomore guard Zach Kocur hit his sixth 3-pointer of the game, and sealed the win when guard Matt Mooney sank a pair of free throws with four seconds to go to make it 76-72.

The Falcons, who shot 42.4 percent for the game but were 12-of-25 from 3-point range, took advantage of several defensive breakdowns by the Rebels down the stretch. Kocur hit three treys in the final 3½ minutes alone.

“Our whole goal is to play them 1-on-1 in the middle with our center and to run everyone else off the 3-point line, and we just didn’t do that,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We just made too many defensive errors. It wasn’t about effort, it was about execution.”

UNLV played without leading scorer Rashad Vaughn (17.8), who tore meniscus in left knee in Tuesday night’s 73-61 win over Fresno State and is out indefinitely. Senior Jelan Kendrick took Vaughn’s spot in the starting lineup and finished with two points, eight assists and eight rebounds in 34 minutes of action.

The Rebels lost despite shooting 50.9 percent and outrebounding the Falcons, 40-27. But 16 turnovers combined with poor perimeter defense down the stretch proved to be the difference.

Kocur finished with 18 points while senior forward Marek Olesinski led the Falcons with 19 points.

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