UNLV lost its third basketball game of a young season Tuesday night because in the most critical of moments, it became sloppy defensively.
It exhibited poor technique.
It was Cal in the NCAA Tournament all over again.
The statistics over 40 minutes will suggest UNLV defended Illinois well enough to win, but lost in the numbers of a 61-59 Illini victory is the fact the Rebels continue to have issues against teams that run numerous set plays.
Call it poor scouting or preparation.
Call it a lack of commitment at the defensive end when one is demanded.
Five games into the 2013-14 schedule, the Rebels have three losses at the Thomas &Mack Center, the most recent against a Big Ten Conference team that while not equal to the Rebels in skill, certainly had the upper hand in execution.
“They definitely took advantage of our mistakes on defense,” UNLV forward Roscoe Smith said.
Consider: Illinois scored its final two baskets on set plays, both backside, misdirection screens that caught the Rebels unprepared or unknowing how to defend them.
The second, a curl into the lane off a double screen by Illini guard Rayvonte Rice for a layup that proved to be the game-winner, was defended by UNLV about as poorly as all of those similar plays run by Cal in March.
There was no step up and hedge by UNLV forward Khem Birch, no faking or stunting at Rice to force him wide so a trailing defender could recover. Birch actually was leaning the opposite way, into a player who set the screen.
That’s not good.
That’s about as far from the textbook as the textbook exists.
And in a game that was always going to come down to the final few possessions, that can’t happen if you expect to win.
It was a costly mistake by Birch, and a tired one from a player who appeared gassed.
“Someone is supposed to have my back,” he said. “I’m supposed to stay back. We don’t hedge. We run ‘Black.’”
Thought No. 1.: Maybe they should start hedging.
In such situations, UNLV prefers to push side ball screens down the sideline, which requires talking and anticipation and teamwork and technique and players who know when to rotate and stunt.
That’s ‘Black,’ pretty advanced stuff used mostly by NBA teams.
But in the world of someone-needs-to-make-a-play-to-save-the-game, a bad black is far worse than a bad hedge.
Thought No. 2.: Go simple.
“We’ve got to be better with our defensive execution,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “No question, when you’re in a one or two-possession game, everything matters. Every rebound, every close-out, every stunt. Everything.”
They weren’t all that good offensively when it mattered most, either, opting to run Bryce Dejean-Jones off ball screens the final 26 seconds and size up defenders who were set and in position while hoping the junior could make a play with his team down a basket and the clock running out.
This is how tight games are won and lost. One play, one mistake, one team’s ability to finish or not. Illinois did; UNLV didn’t.
I love the Bowl Championship Series and those schools included within the cartel. All the opulence and unjust distribution of funds throughout college athletics over the years has allowed a program like Illinois, seemingly destined for a mid-conference finish, to employ more staff members than its state has counties.
(There are 102 for all you trivia buffs).
Illinois on Tuesday night had 12 gentlemen on its bench wearing suits. I have no idea what the responsibilities of most were, but a few were on serious Gatorade duty. Taylor Bern, who covers UNLV for the Las Vegas Sun, informed me there are different types of Gatorade for pre-game, in-game and post-game.
I’m thinking you need at least five suits to keep all that straight.
I’m also thinking kids don’t drink enough water.
UNLV had seven suits on its bench, but Rice never wears a jacket and assistant Heath Schroyer never wears a tie, so let’s call it an even six.
What the Illini also had were more players who executed.
“We will come back stronger and stay together,” Rice said. “We are not a program about just making progress. We are a program about finishing. We came up a little short tonight. I thought our intensity was terrific and that the guys worked extremely hard.
“I thought defensively, for most of the game, we were good.”
Most of the game doesn’t win this one.
Most of the game and two bad possessions against set plays in the final minutes gets you a third loss in November.
All, mind you, at home.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.