FORT COLLINS, Colo. — In the last second of a 40-minute shootout, Jordan Cornish had a shot to be the hero. He liked his chances. When the ball left his fingertips, he thought it was a winner.
“Definitely,” the UNLV freshman guard said. “Everybody in the gym thought it was good.”
And then everyone in the gym watched Cornish’s wide-open 3-point attempt bounce off the rim at the buzzer, an inch separating the Rebels from ecstasy on the Mountain West road. Instead, it was more agony, a blown 18-point first-half lead and another close loss in the conference.
Daniel Bejarano hit a tiebreaking 3 with 1:55 remaining, and Colorado State held its breath and held on for an 83-82 victory over UNLV on Saturday afternoon at Moby Arena.
Freshman guard Rashad Vaughn made six 3s and scored 30 points, but he was a spectator on the final shot for the Rebels (13-10, 4-6).
“I was under the rim when he shot it, and from where I was at, it looked good,” said Vaughn, who was not a primary option on the final play.
Bejarano missed a 3-point try, and after a fight for the rebound resulted in the ball flying out of bounds under the basket, the Rams were awarded possession with 9.8 seconds remaining. But the call was reversed after a replay review, and the delay allowed UNLV coach Dave Rice time to draw up a play.
Cody Doolin dribbled to the right wing, but his handoff to freshman guard Patrick McCaw was denied. Doolin spun around and found Cornish alone on the left wing with the clock close to expiring.
“I just happened to be the open guy,” said Cornish, who called himself the “third option” on the play after Doolin and McCaw.
Cornish, who made a 3 with nine minutes to go and was 20-for-41 on the season, pulled up and released the shot to decide the game.
“There are a lot of different options to the play,” Rice said. “We got a wide-open shot for a guy who’s shooting close to 50 percent from 3.
“I’m very disappointed for our team. We played hard. It was a great college basketball game. For the sixth time in conference, we came up on the short end of the stick by one possession.”
McCaw and sophomore forward Chris Wood each scored 16 points for the Rebels, who have dropped six league games by a total of 25 points, including a nine-point overtime loss at Boise State.
Stanton Kidd scored 12 of his 19 points in the second half, and Bejarano finished with 18 points and nine rebounds for the Rams (20-4, 7-4). Bejarano and Kidd each made three 3-pointers.
UNLV shot 11-for-26 from 3-point range, with Vaughn sinking four of the team’s seven 3s after halftime.
The Rebels were red hot to open the game, hitting 12 of 18 shots while running the court for fast-break dunks and putting on a perimeter shooting exhibition. It was 36-18 after Wood hit a 3 with 8:21 remaining.
“We were moving the ball and getting each other involved. It was amazing,” said Vaughn, who had 14 points in the first half and shot 12-for-21 in the game. “I think that’s the best we’ve played.”
But the UNLV team that resembled Kentucky for a 12-minute burst quickly disappeared.
“For the first 12 or 13 minutes, we were as good as we’ve been all season. That’s how I want our team to look,” Rice said. “We lost our way a little bit. I thought we got away from sharing the ball and we settled for too many quick jump shots.”
The Rams retaliated with an 11-2 run to wake up a crowd that had been stunned silent. It was a fired-up crowd by the time Kidd beat the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer as Colorado State closed to within 41-39.
“We were disappointed in ourselves,” Bejarano said. “We were down 20 points, and I was like, that’s enough. We can’t let our fans down, and we were at home, so we knew we had to play better.”
Ten seconds into the second half, Bejarano’s layup tied the score, and the Rams took the lead on J.J. Avila’s short jumper in the lane at the 18:38 mark. Avila, a senior forward, finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
After McCaw and Bejarano traded 3-pointers, the score was tied at 77 with three minutes remaining.
Bejarano drained a deep 3 to put the Rams ahead with 1:55 left, and Vaughn drove for a basket to cut UNLV’s deficit to one. On the other end, Vaughn fouled Gian Clavell on a 3, and Clavell made all three free throws with 1:02 on the clock. McCaw’s 3-pointer pulled the Rebels within 83-82 with 47 seconds to go.
“That game had about everything except for me getting a technical,” Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said. “UNLV played well enough to win, but the last shot indicated how the game was going to end.
“For young guys to be able to do that in this environment, it says a lot about UNLV. It’s not easy coaching players of that high profile. They are trying to figure themselves out early, and the only way they can figure themselves out is through a great coach. Dave has done as good of a job as anyone in the league in putting the pieces together.”
But there are no moral victories in February.
“We got complacent and just let up,” Vaughn said. “If we get a team by the throat like that, we can’t let them back in the game. We’ve just got to learn to close out games.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.