TUCSON, Ariz. — A rebound basket by Khem Birch put UNLV ahead by one and just a few minutes from knocking off the No. 2 team in the nation. But that’s not where the story ended.
It was just the point where the Rebels’ offense got stopped cold.
Birch’s field goal with 3:30 remaining was UNLV’s last of the game, and because of that, Arizona is set to be ranked No. 1 this week.
T.J. McConnell hit a go-ahead jumper, and Brandon Ashley added a layup with 28 seconds to go as the Wildcats held on for a 63-58 victory over the Rebels on Saturday at the McKale Center.
“We’ve just got to close out games,” said junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, who came off the bench to lead UNLV with 16 points. “The more we keep getting in these situations, the better we’ll get at them.”
The Rebels (3-4) went big-game hunting but couldn’t shoot straight in the second half and allowed another opportunity to slip away in an offensive meltdown, similar to their November losses to Arizona State and Illinois.
But as a 16-point underdog, UNLV walked away from its first road game of the season with what looked and sounded like a notch in the moral victory category.
“I heard the spread had us losing by 20 points, and we lost by five,” Birch said. “We almost beat the No. 1 team on their home floor. I’m not counting our team out. If we play this hard every game, we’ll go far.”
Birch totaled 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Rebels, and junior forward Roscoe Smith, who entered as the nation’s leading rebounder at 16.2 per game, finished with 10 points and a season-low six rebounds.
“There were times when I felt myself boxing out three guys,” Smith said. “They threw everyone at me. Me and Khem need more help down there.”
Arizona won the rebounding battle (41-29) and the defensive struggle that turned things ugly after the half. UNLV shot 64 percent from the field en route to a 42-39 halftime lead, but its second-half shooting (7-for-25, 28 percent) led to its demise.
The Wildcats (9-0) showed why they rank in the top 15 nationally in field-goal percentage defense and scoring defense. After a jumper by Dejean-Jones put the Rebels up 53-52 with 10:37 remaining, they went more than 4½ minutes without a field goal until Dejean-Jones’ reverse layup ended the dry spell with 5:59 to play.
Dejean-Jones was held out of the starting lineup for being a few minutes late to a Friday team meeting, but he played 30 minutes.
UNLV lost its starting point guard, freshman Kendall Smith, to leg cramps around the 12-minute mark. That was a “huge factor” in the rhythm of the offense getting disrupted, coach Dave Rice said.
“We had a chance to win that game,” Rice said. “I don’t want anybody to think I’m pleased or happy with the result. There are no moral victories in our program, so it’s not about that.
“This is a positive step for us. We feel like we’ve made major strides. They will be the No. 1 team in the coming week, but we were a confident group coming in here.”
McConnell, the Wildcats’ point guard, made two pivotal plays down the stretch. His 15-foot jumper put Arizona up 58-57 with 3:10 to go, and then he penetrated the lane to feed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a baseline dunk that extended the margin to three at the 2:18 mark.
Ashley, a 6-foot-8-inch sophomore from Findlay Prep, and McConnell each scored 13 for Arizona. McConnell added seven rebounds, six assists and three steals.
The Rebels pinned down the Wildcats’ top two players, junior guard Nick Johnson and freshman forward Aaron Gordon. Johnson, another Findlay Prep product, scored 12 points but tossed up a lot of bricks, shooting 4-for-15, including 2-for-9 from 3-point range. Gordon had eight points on 2-for-10 shooting.
“Even though we had three losses, I just never thought they had an advantage over us in any way,” Birch said.
An anxious crowd of 15,545 saw it the same way for most of the day. But Arizona escaped, and for the first time in 10 years, it has a shot to be ranked No. 1 in the nation when the polls come out Monday.
“I think it’s something we feel like we’ve earned,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “We know that being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean that we won the championship or the season’s now over.”
The Rebels, who lost their last chance to pick up a marquee nonconference victory, will look ahead to a Saturday trip to Southern Utah.
“A great effort by us,” Rice said. “We’re going to be a good team by the time conference play rolls around.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.