SAN JOSE – Sixteen shots. Eleven-and-a-half minutes. Zero field goals.
If you’re looking for a reason why the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels lost their opening game in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year, that ugly offensive stretch in the second half during a 64-61 loss to Cal here Thursday night at HP Pavilion pretty much sums it up.
The Runnin’ Rebels (25-10), the No. 5 seed in the East Region, struggled mightily with a zone defense employed for the full 40 minutes by the 12th-seeded Bears (21-11), shooting 32.2 percent from the field and 11 percent (1-of-9) from 3-point range in the second half.
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“Never in a million years did I envision it,” junior forward Mike Moser said of the shooting drought. “Shots just weren’t falling. … It was a tough loss.”
“Shots weren’t falling,” added freshman forward Anthony Bennett, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds but was just 4-of-11 from the field. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
UNLV had tied the game at 37-37 on a 3-pointer by Katin Reinhardt (11 points, 3-of-8 treys) with 16:30 remaining when the shooting slump began. They still only trailed by six points, 52-46, when Moser put in a rebound of Reinhardt miss to snap the streak with five minutes to go.
Most of the misses came on jumpers, including seven 3-point attempts. But there were also four missed layups – the Bears blocked three of those attempts – and another came on a missed dunk try by freshman Savon Goodman.
“I don’t think (the zone) confounded them,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who couldn’t remember the last time he had a team that played an entire game in a zone defensively, said. “They got good shots. They got the ball inside the paint some. I don’t think they liked it that much.”
Montgomery knew he had to try something different after the Rebels carved up his man-to-man defense at times during a 76-75 victory in Berkeley on Dec. 9.
“They isolate really good athletes (against a man-to-man defense). That’s where Bennett (25 points) hurt us so much last time,” Montgomery said. “You’ve always got help in a zone. It changes the mentality some.”
“We didn’t perform the way we needed to perform,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Our problem wasn’t just on the offensive end. We didn’t get enough stops in the second half to get some easy baskets and break us through the drought.”
Rice had a point there about UNLV’s defense. Cal had great success attacking the rim, finishing with a 34-18 edge in points in the paint. Robert Thurman, a backup 6-10 walk-on forward, finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting – all dunks.
Thurman gave credit to the penetration of Cal guards Allen Crabbe (game-high 19 points, four assists) and Justin Cobbs (13 points, six assists) for his big night.
“They’re a big threat when they get in there and I was wide open underneath the rim,” Thurman said. “I did what most big guys are supposed to do.”
Despite the offensive woes in the second half, the Rebels still had a chance to pull it out at the end.
Point guard Anthony Marshall – fouled intentionally in the backcourt to prevent a potential game-tying 3-point attempt — hit two free throws with 6.5 seconds to go to cut the lead to one, 62-61.
But the Rebels failed to immediately foul on the ensuing inbounds pass. Crabbe was finally fouled with 1.5 seconds left and hit both free throws. Bears forward Richard Solomon then intercepted Moser’s long inbounds pass near half-court to clinch the win.
It was the final game of a distinguished four-year career for Marshall, who finished with seven points, seven rebounds and six assists, as well as guard Justin Hawkins (three points in 13 minutes) and forward Quintrell Thomas (one rebound in five minutes).
“I’m very, very disappointed for our seniors,” Rice said. “Those guys meant a lot to our program.”
It was also likely the final game for Bennett, rated a high lottery pick should he declare for the NBA draft, and also possibly for Moser, who still may bypass his senior year despite a disappointing junior season marred by a painful elbow injury.
“I’m still attending UNLV,” Bennett said. “I’m not really discussing anything further about my future. As of right now, I’m still going to UNLV, still going to school. Just got to make a big decision when school is over.”
Moser went through the same process a year earlier when he was a first team all-Mountain West selection. And although he likely wouldn’t be drafted by the NBA this time around, he could leave to play internationally.
“I’ve just got to take some time and let my body heal and my mind rest and make a decision,” Moser said.