Going into Tuesday night's matchup, no one was expecting a repeat of the 100-64 drubbing UNLV handed Air Force at the Thomas & Mack in their first meeting. The Falcons previous two home games featured wins over Wyoming and Boise State, but with UNLV a seven point favorite, and riding a two game winning streak, they were still expected to win.
They would not. Falling to an inspired Air Force squad 79-74 at Clune Arena.
The Rebels appeared to have the game in control early, as they quickly built a nine-point lead, but 10 first half turnovers would allow the Falcons to go on a 19-6 point run to close out the half and take a 35-31 lead over the Rebels into the break.
The Rebels would open the second half on an 8-0 run to regain the lead 39-35, but it never appeared as though UNLV was in control. Behind the hot shooting of the Falcons Jacob Van and CJ Siples, Air Force was able to answer that run and eventually build a lead that would get to as many at ten points, 69-59, with 5:32 left to play. UNLV would battle back, cutting the deficit to one at 73-72 after a Jerome Seagears 3-pointer with 55 seconds remaining, but that would be as close as they would be able to get to completing the comeback.
The Falcons received another outstanding game from Sophomore Jacob Van, starting for only the second time this season. He finished with a game high 21 points, and hit several key shots each time the Rebels started to make a run to give control back to the Falcons. Zach Kocur contributed 19 points and CJ Siples chipped in 17 of his own.
UNLV was led in scoring by Patrick McCaw and Jalen Poyser, each scoring 15 points while Sophomore Dwayne Morgan added 13 of his own, including a rare 3-pointer.
UNLV had every chance to leave with a win, and a three game winning streak, but they were ultimately doomed by the free throw line. UNLV attempted 22 free throws, making 15, or 68%, which given this teams struggles from the line is actually decent for them. Air Force attempted 29 free throws, making 23 three of them. The Rebels were slow moving their feet and struggled to get in front of CJ Siples as he continually drove the lane and drew foul after foul.
Maybe it was the altitude that had the Rebels playing a step slower on defense or maybe the team's short bench is catching up with them. Either way, neither of those are any excuse for what happened against Air Force.
This was a must win game before entering the tough final four games of their schedule that features trips to Boise State and San Diego State. Now, outside of a UNR late season collapse, UNLV has a very little chance of jumping up to fifth place and securing a first round bye in the conference Tournament. Their season likely now hinges on winning four games in a row in March.
UNLV plays a must win game against in state rival University of Nevada, Reno on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack. The Wolfpack currently sit in fifth place in the conference at 7-5. If UNLV has any chance of getting into the top five of the conference standings they will need to secure a victory. A loss would all but ensure that the Rebels will be playing on the first day of conference tournament play.
The Falcons will match up against New Mexico at Clune Arena on Saturday afternoon, looking to repeat what they did against UNLV and upset the second place Lobos.