Updated March 11, 2022 - 11:27 am
It ends so suddenly. Like a glass crashing to the floor, small fragments and particles strewn across an incredibly far distance.
Get out the broom. UNLV’s basketball team must put itself back together.
There will be no three wins in three days for the Rebels, no Cinderella run through the Mountain West tournament for an NCAA berth, no madness to their March.
UNLV fell to fourth-seeded Wyoming and what was a sea of gold and brown fans 59-56 in a conference tournament quarterfinal Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It just felt like Laramie, minus about 5,000 feet of elevation.
Hosting the event isn’t any sort of home-court advantage for UNLV. Hasn’t been for some time. The fifth-seeded Rebels last advanced to a semifinal in 2014.
It’s just that the point is driven home more when most of Wyoming makes the 780-mile journey and, well, much of Las Vegas doesn’t drive across town.
A terrible start
“Obviously, down the stretch, the noise made it feel like a home game,” said Wyoming guard Hunter Maldonado. “With us being the higher seed, having our home (white) jerseys on, I told the guys before the game, ‘We protect home court.’”
But the good folks of the Cowboy State didn’t miss 12 of their first 13 shots and seven straight 3-pointers to open the game. They didn’t get beaten up on the boards by allowing 25 rebounds (nine offensive) over the opening 20 minutes. They didn’t wait a half to wake up.
They didn’t get outscored 7-0 the final two minutes.
That was all UNLV.
It didn’t guard for the first half but did in the second. It didn’t make shots early, scored enough to actually lead by four with 2:04 remaining and then never again. It was too little, too late on most accounts.
“It hurts,” said Rebels senior Bryce Hamilton, who scored a game-high 22 in what is expected to be his final game at UNLV. “We played so hard and fought all year. We fought to come back today and got the lead. We fought together. It didn’t end how we wanted it to, but we’re going out proud of everyone.”
The big picture is brighter than one loss. The Rebels finished 18-14 with a team that had 10 new faces to begin the year. They were a better side now than then, better each month since the season tipped off.
It took time. UNLV didn’t beat anyone of note in its non-conference schedule — nobody from which it was an underdog — but found a definite rhythm this last month of conference play.
Whipped an NCAA Tournament team in Colorado State twice. Swept its in-state rival in UNR. Beat this same Wyoming team, presumably also NCAA bound, just last week.
There is some talk about UNLV possibly being considered for a final seed into the NIT. It’s a long shot, although first-year head coach Kevin Kruger emphatically made his case afterward for such a bid. It still didn’t erase the sting of defeat.
“Well, losing is difficult,” said Kruger. “We just need get better. We keep working and stay after it. If we can have the fight and the starting point from where we finished, the group coming back can use that feeling.”
Get your bread
San Jose State has an unofficial mascot that is a duck. It carries around a giant loaf of bread. This was Spartans coach Tim Miles following his team’s overtime loss to Fresno State on Wednesday night:
“Duck, man, get your bread. That’s what ducks do. And we just didn’t get our bread. We were this fricking close to getting our bread. We did not get the bread.”
Such is also UNLV today.
The Rebels didn’t get their bread.
They were hungry enough.
Just not good enough.
Time to sweep up all the fragments and particles and move on.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.