TUCSON, Ariz. – Just seconds remained Saturday afternoon at the McKale Center when Arizona’s student section began the chant.
“We’re number one! We’re number one!”
Yes, the No. 2-ranked Wildcats (9-0), thanks to North Carolina’s upset 79-65 of Michigan State on Wednesday, more than likely will take over the top spot in the polls on Monday after holding off UNLV, 63-58, before a sellout crowd of 15,545.
Which should make Saturday’s latest Runnin’ Rebel loss a whole lot easier to swallow for the UNLV faithful.
Despite playing the final 10 minutes with starting point guard Kendall Smith on the bench battling severe leg cramps, the Rebels (3-4) went toe-to-toe on the road with the soon-to-be top-ranked Wildcats before coming up a little short.
Freshman forward Rhondae Hollis-Jefferson’s slashing baseline dunk off a nice assist by point guard T.J. McConnell with 2:19 left gave Arizona a 60-57 lead and proved to be the game-winner in a contest that featured 18 lead changes and five ties.
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UNLV managed just a free throw over the final 3:26 when a Khem Birch rebound of a Bryce Dejean-Jones miss gave the Rebels their final lead, 57-56.
The Rebels, who finished with 16 turnovers and were outscored 44-22 in the paint by the bigger and more physical Wildcats, seemed out-of-sync offensively with Kendall Smith seated with ice bags on his legs. Smith, who was wincing while trainers Dave Tomchek and Jason Kabo rubbed the ice bags above both his knees, couldn’t even stand and join the team huddle during the game’s final three timeouts.
“It hurt us a lot,” Birch, who finished with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds despite battling early foul problems, said of Smith’s loss. “We needed a leader. … It always hurts when you lose your starting point guard.”
Kendall Smith had six points and just one turnover in 23 minutes of action. Swingman Jelan Kendrick, who took over most of the ball-handling duties after Smith’s departure, had five turnovers including one on a steal by McConnell that he converted into a layup with 5:30 left that put Arizona ahead, 56-55, and fired up his teammates and sellout crowd.
“I love it,” McConnell, a junior transfer from Duquense, said. “When I do that in a pivotal point in the game, it’s big for us. It starts with everyone on defense.”
“That one play I feel like turned the whole game around,” Birch said.
The Rebels, who shot 64 percent from the floor en route to a 42-39 halftime lead, surprisingly struggled on the boards, getting outrebounded, 41-29, and allowing 18 offensive rebounds that resulted in nine second-chance points.
“There were times where I felt that I was boxing out three guys,” Roscoe Smith, who finished with 10 points and a season-low six rebounds, said.
UNLV connected on just 7-of-25 shots in the second half (28 percent) when it was outscored, 24-16.
“We had similar looks but Arizona is so physical and they did a good job at defending us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “There were a few times that we settled for some shots that we didn’t settle for in the first half, and that’s part of the maturation process. (But) we battled.”
Dejean-Jones, who didn’t start the game because he was late for a team meeting on Friday, led the Rebels with 16 points but had only six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the second half.
McConnell and former Findlay Prep star Brandon Ashley had 13 points apiece to lead Arizona while Nick Johnson and 7-foot sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski added 12 each. The Wildcats also got a huge game from Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 freshman who had nine points, seven rebounds, six assists and just one turnover in 28 minutes of action.
Despite the loss, the Rebels left Arizona feeling upbeat.
“It’s going to give us more confidence,” Birch said. “We know what we can do now when we go against good teams, and it will helps us be more confident in the upcoming games against good teams.”
“We battled and I’m very encouraged with what I saw,” Rice said. “I’m disappointed with the result but we have a lot of confidence coming out of this game.”