SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a quiet locker room, Mike Moser shook his head in disbelief, rolled his eyes and tried to explain what went wrong. Another underachieving UNLV team had just been put to sleep.
Anthony Bennett, sitting a few feet away, briefly answered a few questions and stared at his cellphone.
“We’ve got NBA lottery picks in here, we’ve got a great team here,” Moser said. “There’s no way we should be done in the first round. It’s really disappointing. Embarrassing.”
If Bennett, a freshman, and Moser, a junior, had just played their final college game, they went out with a whimper. But one-and-done runs in the NCAA Tournament are becoming an annual tradition for the Rebels. An embarrassing tradition.
Allen Crabbe scored 19 points to lead 12th-seeded California to a 64-61 upset of fifth-seeded UNLV on Thursday in the teams’ East Region opener at HP Pavilion.
The Rebels (25-10) were knocked out of the NCAA field in their opening game for the fourth consecutive year.
“Guys understand the NCAA Tournament is a big stage, and we didn’t perform the way we’re capable,” coach Dave Rice said.
The game played out the way Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery scripted it. He designed a zone defense that left the Rebels looking clueless on the offensive end.
UNLV went 11½ minutes without making a field goal, from the 16:32 mark of the second half until Moser’s layup with five minutes remaining. A game that was tied at 37 turned Cal’s way as the Rebels missed 16 straight shots.
“I think the zone bothered them,” said Montgomery, who staged a coaching clinic. “They started to miss shots a little bit, and that’s what a zone is going to do.”
Bennett and sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones each had 15 points for UNLV, which shot 32.2 percent from the field (19-for-59) and 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the second half.
“I wouldn’t say their zone bothered us. Our shots weren’t falling,” said Bennett, who shot 4-for-11 from the field and 7-for-10 on free throws. He was double-teamed and bracketed by the Bears’ defense on every touch.
Bennett’s three-point play pulled the Rebels, who trailed by as many as nine in the second half, within 60-58 with 14.4 seconds left. But the Rebels’ urgency to get back into the game showed up too late.
Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt finished with 11 points, but only three in the second half. Anthony Marshall concluded his senior season with seven points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Crabbe and point guard Justin Cobbs (13 points) ran off screens and penetrated the lane to create scoring opportunities on one end while the Cal zone suffocated UNLV on the offensive end.
“We just didn’t make enough plays against that zone,” Rice said. “The plan was to get high-post, low-post touches and to move the ball. We struggled a little bit at various times getting the ball moved. We just didn’t execute nearly well enough against the zone.
“Part of the problem was we didn’t get enough stops in various points in the game to get out in transition to get enough easy baskets. It’s not just the issues on the offensive end.”
Robert Thurman, a reserve forward, repeatedly cut down the baseline and drove a dagger through the Rebels’ defense, adding 12 points on six dunks for the Bears (21-11).
“For most guys that are 6-8, it’s not very hard to dunk,” Thurman said. “I was wide open underneath the rim.”
Cal was more prepared to play in every way, scoring the first seven points of the game and opening the second half with a 9-3 run. Each time, Rice had to use a timeout to regroup.
The teams were tied at 28 at the half before Crabbe, Cobbs and Thurman took control. The Bears surged ahead 45-37 when Crabbe rolled off a screen, drove the lane and hit a floater with 14:09 left.
Unable to stop Cal, which shot 44 percent, the Rebels never got into an offensive rhythm and were ushered to another early exit.
“Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what happened,” said Moser, who had five points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes. “It was kind of a matchup zone and they were switching things. That kind of took away our pick-and-roll option, which we depend on so much. It took away getting easy baskets in the middle, as well, because they clogged that up pretty well. We just couldn’t get a lot of easy baskets.”
Bennett took the loss, and the likely end of his one-year UNLV career, the hard way.
“I’m mad, disappointed,” he said. “Just really mad.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.