ALBUQUERQUE – For a while at The Pit on Thursday night, it appeared UNLV was well on its way to doing the impossible … topping last year’s NCAA Tournament clunker against Illinois.
The Runnin’ Rebels once again appeared surprisingly listless at the start, were hammered on the boards and shot even worse. The 11th-seeded Buffaloes, a mid-level team from the not-so-mighty Pac-12 Conference, led by 20 points early in the second half and appeared to be well on their way to an unexpected laugher.
But the Rebels, thanks to a trapping fullcourt press that help force 23 Colorado turnovers – where was that all season? — used a late 22-4 run to close to within two points before eventually settling for a 68-64 loss.
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Forward Andre Roberson scored 12 points, including three free throws in crunch time, and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds while backup point guard Askia Booker scored 16 points to help give the Buffaloes (24-11) their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1997.
UNLV (26-9), which shot a season low 27.6 percent (8-of-29) in the first half while also getting outrebounded 27-12, was one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season.
“It’s hard,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “My heart goes out to the seniors on this team because they put out so much effort and showed so much heart.”
The Rebels never led in the contest, falling behind 14-4 after just six minutes behind the inspired play of Roberson and former Utah guard Carlon Brown (12 points, 6 rebounds).
UNLV coach Dave Rice used three time outs during the sputtering start to try and rally his squad but with little success. The Rebels trailed by 11 points at halftime, 36-25, but it seemed like a whole lot more one-sided than that.
“I have no idea (why),” senior guard Oscar Bellfield said of the slow start. “We just came out flat. … We just didn’t step up to the challenge in the first half and play with a lot of heart.”
“They just played harder than we did,” added guard Justin Hawkins. “They out-rebounded and out-hustled us.”
Many in the crowd of 11,839 had already hit the exits when the Rebels finally turned it on.
UNLV, which trailed, 53-33, with 13:08 remaining, then went on a 22-4 run that included a 14-0 spurt that cut Colorado’s lead to two, 57-55, with 4:17 to go.
“We had to fight back,” senior guard Kendall Wallace said. “It’s tough to be down 20. We just fought and picked up it defensively and forced some turnovers and finally got some things rolling there. But it was too little, too late.”
A dunk by Brown with 2:30 remaining increased Colorado’s lead back up to five points, 60-55, and seemed to demoralize the Rebels who managed just an Anthony Marshall free throw on their next five offensive possessions.
The Rebels shot just 32.4 percent from the floor for the game, including just 9 of 36 (25 percent) from 3-point range. Colorado finished with a huge 46-33 rebounding edge.
Marshall had 15 points, four blocks and three steals to lead the Rebels while Hawkins added 11 points and Bellfield and Moser each finished with 10.
“Just did not get off to a very good start tonight,” Rice, who had his team ranked for 13 straight weeks in his first year as a head coach, said. “Missed some easy shots and lost a little sense of urgency, and we made a furious comeback. … It’s just hard to dig ourselves out of that kind of hole.”