For most of the night, Larry Nance Jr. limped up and down the floor, hobbled by a pulled groin. But in a game played in slow motion, he was able to keep pace.
With the clock winding down, the ball was in his hands, and Nance pulled up for a shot to tie.
“I thought I had a good look, and I thought it was going in,” the Wyoming forward said. “But I always think it’s going in.”
Nance’s 8-foot jumper in the lane bounced off the rim with two seconds to go, and UNLV bounced back with a 48-46 victory over the Cowboys on Saturday night at the Thomas &Mack Center.
Khem Birch, who defended the 6-foot-8-inch Nance’s last shot, scored 10 points as the Rebels (16-8, 7-4 Mountain West) recovered from their most lopsided loss of the conference season.
After a timeout with 15 seconds remaining, Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt drew a play that put his best player in position to score.
“Throw it into Nance,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said of the play he anticipated. “That’s probably what the old Houston Rockets would have done, throw it into (Hakeem) Olajuwon.
“I know Nance got a pretty good look. He’s an all-conference player. He’ll be in the NBA in a couple years.”
Nance, who started to hobble midway through the first half, finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in 38 minutes for the Cowboys (14-9, 5-5).
Rebels forward Roscoe Smith, who had eight points and nine rebounds, said he never noticed Nance’s obvious limp.
“I didn’t know. That was my first time seeing him play,” Smith said. “I don’t really know how he walks or nothing.”
Both teams were doing a lot of walking up the court, and neither team was scorching the peach baskets.
“We combined for 94 points,” Rice said. “That’s a pretty exciting deal.”
But senior guard Kevin Olekaibe finally gave UNLV a reason to get excited. The margin was airtight, with neither team leading by more than six points, until Olekaibe’s 3-pointer put the Rebels ahead 41-34 with 6:46 remaining.
“That was a huge momentum basket for us,” Rice said.
The Cowboys cut their deficit to 44-42 on Riley Grabau’s 3 with 3:02 left. Deville Smith drove for a twisting layup to extend UNLV’s lead to 48-43 at the 1:21 mark. Grabau spotted up in the left corner and hit another 3 to pull Wyoming within 48-46 with 1:04 to play. On the Rebels’ next possession, Smith dribbled the clock down before throwing the ball away, setting up the Cowboys for the final shot.
“I had a lot of confidence in Deville to make a play,” Rice said. “We used clock, but we didn’t get a shot off.”
UNLV shot 9-for-27 in the first half and led 22-20 when Rice walked into the locker room and implored his players to pound the ball into the paint and get higher-percentage shots in the second half.
A different, wiser approach paid off for the Rebels, who shot 12-for-22 (54.5 percent) after halftime and finished 21-for-49 for the game.
“It was real ugly. We couldn’t get a shot to go down in the first half,” said Olekaibe, who scored eight points along with Bryce Dejean-Jones. “Coach told us they were going to come in and take the air out of the ball. We showed we can play at a slow pace and a fast pace.”
That a snail’s pace was dictated by the Cowboys was no surprise.
“They certainly controlled tempo. There were not a lot of possessions in the game,” Rice said. “We talked about throwing the ball inside, dribble penetrating inside and not settling for quick jump shots.
“We got beat for a few layups and missed a few assignments. But Wyoming is hard to play against. It’s like playing against Air Force.”
It was indeed ugly, but in the end, the Rebels rebounded from their weak effort in a 75-57 loss at Colorado State on Wednesday.
“The team that played at Colorado State was a team none of us recognized,” Rice said. “We knew this was going to be an incredibly hard game.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.