With fifth home loss, UNLV’s ship taking on water

Well, there is a bright side: UNLV’s basketball team plays its next two Mountain West games on the road.

And boom goes the dynamite.

The Rebels today are a team stranded at sea with a giant hole in the raft, not enough life jackets and a radio transmitter engulfed in water. They are as disjointed off the court as they are on it, helplessly searching for reasons why they can’t beat average teams at home.

They are flapping their arms and kicking their legs and not sure how to stay afloat.

UNLV lost its second straight at the Thomas &Mack Center on Wednesday night, dropping a 74-71 decision to UNR that wasn’t near as close as a three-point margin suggests.

This was a 14-point game with 3:37 remaining, when most of the announced gathering of 13,741 were headed home, likely wondering how the Rebels could emerge with a two-point lead at intermission and be outscored 11-0 by a team with losses to Cal State Bakersfield and Long Beach State.

It’s the fifth home loss for UNLV this season and the first time since 2005 the Rebels couldn’t score more points than UNR when the rivalry matchup arrived.

Just don’t ask anyone around UNLV’s team how and why the latest defeat played out. You will get mass confusion.

Sort of how the Rebels appeared this week against Air Force and UNR, picked 10th and ninth respectively in the Mountain West.

“Any time you’re facing adversity in conference play, you’re at a crossroads,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s incumbent upon us to bounce back and go on the road and accept the challenge of how difficult next week is going to be.”

That’s when UNLV plays at preseason conference favorite New Mexico on Wednesday and 13th-ranked San Diego State on Saturday.

Hey, it can’t be any worse than the past four days. Impossible.

Rice kept calling UNR a “good team” afterward, but in reality the Wolf Pack are dead-flat average at 8-8. Still, you can’t shoot 35 percent at home, including 4 of 24 to start the second half, and beat Dixie State.

Which the Rebels proved earlier this season against, well, Dixie State.

UNLV couldn’t guard a pro in UNR senior Deonte Burton (29 points) and again had the sort of defensive lapses that make it impossible for a team struggling to score to overcome.

The game was confusing enough.

The news conference afterward was completely bizarre.

Rice was asked why, with his team trailing by 10 with 1:50 left, it didn’t foul to try to gain possession. He said the Rebels instead wanted to get the ball out of Burton’s hands and set up their press, which begged a few questions:

How are you trying to get the ball out of his hands when you allow him to stand at midcourt and cradle it possession after possession as the clock ticks down? No trapping. No anything.

More to the point: UNLV has a press?

The Rebels turned UNR over a few times off made baskets the final 20 seconds but committed only one foul between the 1:50 mark and 10 seconds remaining in the game. One.

“We’re emotionally and physically tired, waking up every morning to shoot free throws and then having practice,” junior forward Khem Birch said. “Wake up at 8 or 9, watch film, practice at 2 ... I feel like everyone doesn’t have the same stamina. Everyone is tired ... it just wears on you.”

Yep. Things got strange about then.

Birch and teammate Roscoe Smith — who said he didn’t feel everyone was giving maximum effort but that he wasn’t pointing fingers — did their best to search for answers to difficult questions.

It’s not an easy role to play after such a loss, and at one point, anyone with a sense of compassion was hoping someone found each player a life vest.

But the Rebels also saw Rice bench junior Jelan Kendrick on Wednesday for being “significantly late to practice” this week.

UNLV is on semester break and still has players showing up late to practice and others suggesting they’re drained with no legs on days following games?

Is there some team rule that no one can sleep more than five hours a night?

All this at the midpoint of a season?

“We’re down, but I’m not going to determine anything until after these two road games coming up,” Birch said. “We play better against higher teams, and we could pull off two upsets, so I’m not going to say anything.”

They’re 4-1 away from the Thomas &Mack. The Mountain West already is proving to be crazy. They could win both. They could gain a split. They could go to San Diego State and shoot 25 percent.

One thing though: If the Rebels already are tired after 16 games, what’s going to happen when they hit altitude in Albuquerque?

For their sake, and the way things have been going with players being tardy, I hope no one misses the plane.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.