On a night that saw 2012 National League Rookie of the Year and former Las Vegas High star Bryce Harper introduced while sitting near the UNLV bench, it was another Bryce who ended up stealing the show.
Sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who learned earlier that he was losing his starting job with the return of all-conference forward Mike Moser, scored eight of his 18 points in overtime, including what proved to be the game-winning jumper with 12.8 seconds left, as the Runnin’ Rebels (14-3, 1-1) pulled out a hard-fought 76-71 Mountain West victory over Air Force (9-5, 1-1) at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Freshman forward Anthony Bennett had 22 points and 16 rebounds and Moser, despite battling back spasms, added 14 points and 11 rebounds for UNLV, which improved to 17-1 all-time against the Falcons at the Thomas & Mack Center.
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Senior forward Mike Fitzgerald had 22 points to lead Air Force and guard Michael Lyons added 19 points, including a free throw that gave the Falcons their final lead, 71-70, with 39.8 seconds left in OT.
After Dejean-Jones hit a mid-range jumper from the right baseline to put UNLV back ahead for good, 72-71, Lyons missed a short jumper from the right side of the key with four seconds left, and UNLV center Khem Birch got the rebound and was fouled. Birch then sank a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds left to increase UNLV’s lead to 74-71, and after a long Air Force inbounds pass went out of bounds, Dejean-Jones was fouled and added two more free throws to clinch it.
“(Dejean-Jones) is a very talented player,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “He got free and made some big shots for them.”
With Moser ready to return the starting lineup for the first time in almost five weeks since dislocating his elbow in a game at Cal, UNLV coach Dave Rice had a tough decision to make.
Did Rice take out talented freshman Katin Reinhardt or USC transfer Dejean-Jones out of the starting lineup? Both guards had started the previous 15 games.
Rice informed Dejean-Jones that he would be headed to the bench despite averaging 9.2 points per game.
“I just like Bryce’s energy coming off the bench,” Rice explained. “It was more about Mike Moser being a junior, an all-conference player last year. Getting Mike back in the starting lineup is big for us.”
Dejean-Jones delivered a lot more than energy, sinking two pressure-packed free throws with 36 seconds left in regulation that tied it, 62-62, and helped send the game into overtime. Then he made a wide-open baseline jumper with 12.8 seconds left in OT to put the Rebels ahead to stay, 72-71.
“I didn’t really have a reaction,” Dejean-Jones said when asked what went through his mind when he was informed by Rice that he had lost his starting spot. “It was coach’s decision. I knew my time would come. I just came off the bench ready to go.”
UNLV led by as many as nine points, 41-32, early in the second half but the Falcons methodically chipped away and regained the lead, 55-54, on a 3-pointer from the top of the key by senior guard Kyle Green with 5:38 to go.
The Falcons held a 60-58 lead with 3:03 remaining when the Rebels tied it on a layup by Bennett. But the Falcons regained the lead a few seconds later when freshman guard Tre’ Coggins was fouled by Justin Hawkins and sank a pair of free throws to make it 62-60.
UNLV, which has now won 11 in a row over Air Force, then tied the game, 62-62, on Dejean Jones’ two free throws. The Falcons then had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but Fitzgerald missed a 3-pointer.
GAME NOTES: Air Force is now just 2-78 all-time against ranked teams. … Guard Anthony Marshall finished with a career-high 12 assists, including one on Dejean-Jones’ game-winner, and had just two turnovers in 43 minutes of action. … UNLV finished with 23 assists on 26 field goals, including its first 18 buckets of the game. … The Rebels shot just 58.1 percent from the free throw line, including a dismal 5-of-17 (29.4 percent) in the second half. … Bennett, who was apparently feeling ill during the game, finished with a career-high 16 rebounds en route to his eighth double-double. … UNLV finished with a 28-12 edge in bench points. … Moser, who played 40 minutes, had to be helped back to the locker room following the postgame press conference because of his sore back.