UNLV was struggling offensively against Air Force’s zone defense. The Falcons had kept the Runnin’ Rebels out of the paint for nearly the entire first half.
UNLV was scoring just .95 points per possession against the least efficient defense in the Mountain West. The Falcons are allowing 1.15 points per possession in conference play, and yes, that is worse than San Jose State.
So with 3:55 left Dave Rice put in Dantley Walker, and immediately the crowd came alive for the first time.
"A big factor in the game was Dantley Walker. He played four minutes in the game, and I thought he turned the momentum in the first half," Rice said.
UNLV closed out the first half on a 6-0 run with Walker having a hand in five of the Rebel points. He gave Rice plenty of reasons to consider using him more this season.
Here’s what happened in the final 3:55. It didn’t start off well for UNLV, as the first possession with Walker on the floor resulted in a turnover.
<iframe width="640" height="390" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_LHPVVKEFMM" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Walker and Pat McCaw don’t get anything accomplished by floating passes over the extended zone. That’s part of the worry with playing Walker; he’s listed at 5-foot-11 and will likely struggle if he’s put in a spot where he has to break a pressure defense.
But Dave Rice realized this and put Walker in a spot he could succeed. Air Force hadn’t run that 1-3-1 zone until Walker came onto the court. After Jelan Kendrick missed a dunk in transition and Goodluck Okonoboh went 1 of 2 at the free throw line, Rice went small.
His lineup consisted of McCaw, Walker, Kendrick, Rashad Vaughn and Dwayne Morgan. McCaw and Vaughn broke the pressure, while Walker was positioned in the weak spot of the 1-3-1.
Walker doesn’t have a defender near him, and not one Falcon is looking at Walker. The sharpshooter would miss an open three on this possession. But he created his own highlight the next time down the floor.
<iframe width="640" height="390" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gbZL90NdF7A" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Walker’s pump fake gets two Falcons to blow by him, one of which is the back defender in the 1-3-1. With those two out of the picture Walker was able to get himself an open jumper, but instead of launching away, he hits Kendrick on the inside.
Then on the final possession of the half for UNLV, Walker exposed the Air Force 1-2-2 zone.
<iframe width="640" height="390" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QF7Y41kxrEo" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
He and Vaughn swap sides while Kendrick sets a ball screen on the top man of the 1-2-2. That means the wing in the zone has to step up to defend the ball screen. Meanwhile Dwayne Morgan sets just enough of a screen on the low man in the zone to free up Walker.
That’s a simple play, and there is no reason any team should be in a zone when UNLV has Walker on the court.
So Walker torched a zone defense; that’s expected of a high-quality shooter. What was a big surprise was Air Force didn’t score a single point while Walker was on the court.
Walker is thought to be a liability on the defensive side of the ball. But if UNLV can hide him in a zone and get away with it, there is all the more reason to give Walker more minutes.
But the attitude change in the Thomas & Mack may be the top reason to give Walker some more run. The crowd went from groaning at every UNLV three-point attempt to screaming for Walker to shoot as soon as he touched the ball.
Plus the players seemed to be enjoying the game more with Walker on the floor, something that was missing during the Rebels six-losses-in-seven games slide earlier this year.
"It’s totally different when Dantley is on the floor," McCaw said. "He gets the most applause out of everybody. He gives us a little spark. He makes the game fun."
Walker has played in just four conference games. His longest outing came against San Jose State when he got 13 minutes and went 1 of 5 from the floor. Otherwise, Saturday against Air Force was the first time Walker has played significant minutes in a Mountain West game.
If four minutes of Dantley Walker makes everyone happier – and UNLV can get away with it on defense – he should see more time. But if he can’t provide some support in ball handling and getting defensive stops, Walker may not be able to offset his deficiencies with shooting.