#MWMadness: UNLV Wins Triple-Overtime Thriller over Air Force
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - Instant classic.
That would be the only way to describe Wednesday's opening-round battle in the 2016 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship between the seventh-seeded UNLV Runnin' Rebels and 10th-seeded Air Force Falcons.
And after three overtimes, with a shortened roster, it was UNLV prevailing, 108-102.
"We made some incredible individual efforts. Guys stepping up and, you know, gave everything they had for 55 minutes as a group," UNLV interim coach Todd Simon said.
The Rebels next face No. 2 seed Fresno State, and MW Player of the Year Marvelle Harris, in Thursday's quarterfinal at 6 p.m. PT.
Ike Nwamu, who finished with a career-high 38 points to lead the Rebels, including eight in the third overtime, said he's already prepared to think about Fresno State.
"We're not going to really think about how tired we are, because you don't get an asterisk if you're complaining about being tired," Nwamu said. "We're just going to get our feet up, get hydrated and then we'll be ready to go tomorrow."
UNLV - which saw Stephen Zimmerman Jr., and Jalen Poyser foul out in regulation, and Jordan Cornish during the second overtime - also got 27 points and 14 rebounds from Patrick McCaw. Cornish added 20 points, while Jerome Seagers had 13.
"The adversity this group has gone through, it's almost a decade's worth in most programs," Simon said. "And I think these young men are going to have life lessons that will apply and reach back and find for a long, long time."
Said McCaw: "It says a lot about our team. We had two walk-ons, but that's still part of our team. It's a strong bond that we've had, and that we've grown through the whole season. We've been through so much as a team, everybody gets along and has fun together. They brought the same energy and effort and that was huge for us."
Air Force controlled the opening tip of the third period, but Jacob Van missed a quick attempt that was rebounded by Nwamu, who drove the length of the court and scored on a lay in and ensuing free throw, giving the Rebels a 92-89 lead. After Nwamu blocked Van's next attempt, UNLV's Barry Cheaney was fouled at the other end and he hit one of two from the charity stripe, making it 93-89.
Knowing UNLV's McCaw was in foul trouble, while the Rebels were down to bare bones with their roster, Falcons guard Zach Kocur drove around McCaw for an easy lay in, cutting the lead to two.
Again, Nwamu was fouled at UNLV's end, but after sinking one of his two from the line, Kocur responded by draining a 3-pointer to tie the game, 94-94. The two met at the other end and Kocur fouled Nwamu with 2:22 left. This time Nwamu hit both free throws to put UNLV back in front.
Air Force's Dezmond James was called for a charge on UNLV walk-on Austin Starr, the Rebels' last man off the bench. Two possessions later, Kyle Broekhuis was eliminated after fouling Starr for his fifth. Starr hit one of two to extend UNLV's lead to three, 97-94. After an Air Force miss, Nwamu scored in transition to push the lead to 99-94.
At that point, the Rebels had seized momentum and the Falcons couldn't make up ground.
Van led five Falcons players with double digits, as the sophomore guard scored 37 points. Kocur had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Both teams had a chance to pull ahead at the end of the first overtime, but turned the ball over. Dribbling to the right side, McCaw lost the handle during a crossover move in front of the Rebels' bench, turning it over to Air Force with 7.8 left in the extra period. Then, with Van looking to Frank Toohey, Seagears broke up the pass and was fouled by Toohey in a scramble for the ball with .4 seconds remaining.
"I believe it was a loose ball foul or something along those lines, player-controlled ball," Simon said, in regards to why Seagears wasn't awarded free throws. "It didn't fall under those guidelines that result in free throws."
After a back-and-forth second overtime, UNLV was ahead by three when Van drove to his end of the court and pulled up for a 3-pointer in front of Cornish, who was whistled for his fifth and eliminating foul. Van hit three free throws with three seconds left, tying the game at 89. After a timeout, McCaw's one-handed shot was off target and the teams headed to a third overtime.
"I've never been in that situation. I just try to think back when I was in the gym myself, getting shots up, shooting free throws," Van said. "I just tried to take my mind away from the situation and take it one free throw at a time and not put pressure on myself."
Simon said as frustrating as it was to see Cornish's foul, he was proud of his players for staying composed for the third overtime.
"It's been a theme for us all year, even in the face of any adversity or anything these guys are facing, we constantly preach poise and control what you can control," he said. "And they displayed great hardness as we like to call it. Nothing rattled them. They continued to move on to the next play and roll with the punches and move on, turn the page. And so that's kind of where we were. And hey, you know, it results in five more minutes of basketball, there could be worse things."
Like UNLV's inconsistency during the first half, which did them no favors as mini-cold streaks during a rather hot-shooting half allowed the Falcons to erase an 11-point lead over the final two minutes.
After hitting six of their first seven field goal attempts, the Rebels missed four of their next five. They followed up with another 6-of-7 spree from the field, then missed three of five. So even though they hit 62.5 percent (15-of-24), it couldn't stop the Falcons.
Air Force opened the game hitting just 3-of-11 shots from the floor, but reversed the trend and drained 12 of its last 18 attempts. After falling behind 38-27 at the 2:43 mark of the half, the Falcons surged back into the game with a furious rally.
Van's 3-pointer with 2:06 left ignited the run. Hayden Graham took advantage of two UNLV turnovers and a foul on Poyser, and scored the Falcons' next five points. After another Runnin' Rebel turnover, this one by Jerome Seagears, Kocur buried a 3-pointer to complete the 11-0 run, and knot the score at 38-all just before halftime.
The Falcons build an eight-point lead in the second half, 56-48, with 8:47 left in the game, but then missed five of their next six shots, which allowed the Rebels to claw their way back into the game.
UNLV used a 10-4 run in less than three minutes to pull within two, at 60-58, but the Falcons responded with three quick points when Van hit one of two free throws and Graham hit a soft 12-foot jumper to extend the lead to five. McCaw's tip-in 30 seconds later made it 63-60 with a little less than five minutes remaining in the contest.
Then, with a little more than a minute to go, McCaw's turnaround jumper tied the game at 65-apiece. Air Force's CJ Spiles turned the ball over on the next possession, and after a timeout, UNLV's Cornish was fouled underneath the basket and he proceeded to hit a pair of free throws to give the Rebels a 67-65 lead.
Following an Air Force timeout with 32.7 left, Kocur drove baseline and threw the ball away while trying to pass to Graham. Cornish was fouled immediately after the inbounds pass, and hit one of two free throws
Van drove length of court and into left side of the paint for an easy lay in, cutting the lead to one, at 68-67. Nwamu then hit one of two free throws
Van nailed a short jumper to tie the game at 69 with 6.4 seconds. Nwamu took the inbounds pass and headed down the left side of the court. After crossing midcourt, he made a powerful move to the hoop and had a good look, but his layup attempt rolled around the rim, and McCaw's tip-in attempt failed, forcing overtime.
"What a great game by two teams," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. "That was a pretty exciting game. Two teams that just fought tremendously to the end. When you get to this point in the season and it's a one-and-done situation, I'm proud of these two men (Van and Kocur) and the rest of our team.
Several records were set or broken in the game, including the following new marks:
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez