By the time last month’s game at Air Force reached its closing minutes, UNLV was well out of it.
Rebels coach Marvin Menzies at least wanted a chance at the end when the teams met in a rematch Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
UNLV was right there this time with a chance to win, and that’s exactly what the Rebels did. Noah Robotham and Nick Blair combined to make six free throws in the final 29.2 seconds to give the Rebels a 77-72 victory.
“We were pretty juiced up for this one,” said UNLV guard Amauri Hardy, who scored 24 points. “In practice, (Menzies) put the score of the last game on the scoreboard. So pretty much we were thinking about that the whole week.”
Forgetting the 106-88 loss to the Falcons on Jan. 16 wasn’t easy for the Rebels.
“They beat the heck out of us,” Menzies said. “We needed a little redemption. We didn’t need to beat them like a drum like they did us.”
Finding a way to win a close one was enough.
Robotham hit the first two free throws to give the Rebels the lead at 73-72. Air Force called timeout, but A.J. Walker then missed a layup. Blair was fouled with 18.3 seconds remaining and made both free throws for a three-point lead.
After the Falcons’ Caleb Morris missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds, Robotham clinched the victory with two free throws.
Unlike the first half, UNLV (13-11, 7-5 Mountain West) played some defense, though it took a half for the Rebels to get going after Air Force (10-14, 5-7) scored 40 points in the first 20 minutes.
UNLV didn’t have Mbacke Diong in the first matchup because he was out with a sprained ankle. On Tuesday, Diong grabbed nine rebounds and had a team-best plus-15 rating.
While Diong was helping the Rebels get the job done with his interior defense, Hardy spent most of the night carrying the team offensively. He made 9 of 14 shots and bested his previous career high by one point — set last month at Air Force.
“Coming into this game, being that I had a pretty decent game against them the last time, I figured why not have another one?” Hardy said. “They couldn’t really guard the ball screens. That was their weakness, so I was pretty much attacking it and trying to make the right play.”
Hardy had chances to put away the Falcons late, but missed two free throws and a layup in the final 2:22 as Air Force rallied. The Falcons trailed 71-64 with 3:04 remaining.
Air Force took a 72-71 lead with 1:02 left when Walker made a 3-pointer.
UNLV’s Kris Clyburn then missed a 3-pointer, but Robotham grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled, setting the stage for the Rebels to win from the line at the end.
Blair scored 13 points and Robotham 12. Lavelle Scottie led Air Force with 25 points, and Ryan Swan totaled 17 points and 16 rebounds.
1. A badly needed victory. UNLV had lost four of five games before this one by at least 17 points each. But with the Rebels hitting a soft spot in their schedule, they had to beat Air Force to begin to take advantage of this stretch. Their next two games are at San Jose State on Saturday and Wyoming on Tuesday.
2. Riding the bench. UNLV’s Joel Ntambwe, who has started every game this season, played only 11 minutes and scored four points. He struggled early, limiting his playing time.
3. All for a good cause. Coaches for both teams wore green ties to raise awareness for literacy. More than 50 schools have taken part in the initiative since 2014.