UNLV went from top of Everest to depths of Death Valley

BOISE, Idaho

First things first: The ball was still in Deville Smith’s possession when the clock reached 0:00.

It hadn’t left his fingertips. He didn’t get the shot off in time.

It shouldn’t have counted.

Next things next: Taco Bell Arena cost $17.5 million to build in 1982. It would cost $42.3 million today. You would hope these people could afford decent electricity.

Next things last: It was as difficult and emotional a loss as you can imagine for UNLV’s basketball team. The Rebels played their hearts out for 45 minutes Saturday night and deserved a better fate.

Crazy. Boise State also deserved the one it received.

The Broncos prevailed 91-90 in overtime when Smith’s 3-pointer was disallowed after the backboard’s red light never went on at the buzzer and officials went to replays to determine whether to count the shot.

They correctly didn’t — screen shots supported their final decision — and what was a euphoric UNLV side just minutes earlier instead turned to one of agony and disbelief.

In a season of countless ups and downs, UNLV went from the top of Everest to the depths of Death Valley.

The Rebels went from rushing the court and tackling one another in celebration to faces painted in shock and despair and backs bent at the waist.

“We have proven so many times this year, especially on the road, that if we stay together and play together, we can be as good as any team in this league,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We’ve also proven that when we don’t do those things, we aren’t very good. But I thought we were terrific today. It’s unfortunate we had to lose. I’m extremely disappointed for our guys.”

It was 8:10 p.m. local time here, and the arena had emptied when a few workers lowered the basket at which Smith shot, pushed a few buttons and, presto! The red light went on.

I’m pretty sure those guys will be taken off light duty and serving chalupas at a drive-thru come Monday.

But the light isn’t the first option by which officials use to reverse a call. The clock is. Then the light. Then the horn. But to have such an entertaining, offensively efficient game by both teams end in controversy was a shame.

UNLV was bad in losing by 12 at home to New Mexico on Wednesday. Really bad. Inept. It was the sort of forgettable performance in late February after which a team chooses which way to go — pack it in and ride out the season’s final few weeks or bow your back and refuse to do so.

The Rebels chose the latter.

They shot 51 percent on the road and outrebounded Boise State 38-35. They had six players reach double figures in scoring and made 8-of-19 3s. They scored nearly 20 points more than their season average.

They spaced the floor and shared the ball and played inside-out and made shots. If they executed on offense like this all season, there is no way UNLV would be staring at an overall record of 17-10 and an 8-6 conference mark.

It’s true UNLV missed critical free throws down the stretch and turned the ball over at the worst times, but Boise State is the league’s best offense for a reason. It’s incredibly hard to stay with the Broncos here. Things are never going to be perfect when trying to keep up.

“We’ve been in seven games in league that have came down not to the last minute but to the last shot,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “Think about that. I’ve never heard anything like that.”

His team definitely played well enough to win. It got 22 points and 15 rebounds from one of the conference’s best and most underrated players (Ryan Watkins) and a 3-pointer from Anthony Drmic with 46 seconds left in regulation that pulled the Broncos within two and was as tough a shot as it was timely. Boise State rallied from nine down with 4:21 left and from five down with 52 seconds left. It didn’t back into victory.

UNLV coaches will turn on film of this game Monday and show their players all the good they did. Four games remain before the conference tournament, and efforts like this will have the Rebels in all of them and then some.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was impressive.

Things could have gone either way after Wednesday.

“We have to build on this,” Dave Rice said. “The ones where you don’t play well and don’t compete and don’t give great effort are the toughest ones. This is difficult because you feel so bad for your team because it deserved to win, just like Boise State deserved to win. You can accept ones like this a little easier. It just didn’t go our way.”

A shot went up and in and a red light didn’t go on and a clock read 0:00.

Jubilation turned into depression.

It was the right call. Smith didn’t get it off on time.

Which shouldn’t in any way take away from UNLV’s performance.

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.