Published January 13, 2015
Four straight trips to the NCAA tournament, four straight opening-game losses.
While UNLV seems headed in the right direction, it's not all the way back just yet.
Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 15 points and freshman NBA prospect Anthony Bennett shook off a poor start to finish with 15 points and 10 rebounds as the fifth-seeded Runnin' Rebels exited early again, losing 64-61 to No. 12 seed California on Thursday night.
"We're bitterly disappointed," second-year coach Dave Rice said.
The Golden Bears (21-11) held the Rebels (25-10) without a basket for more than 11 minutes in the second half. Cal confused UNLV with 40 minutes of zone defense, something coach Mike Montgomery couldn't recall doing since he was at Montana from 1977-86.
The dominant defensive stretch turned a tie game into a nine-point lead. Cal withstood a late UNLV push for its first tournament win since 2010.
The Rebels rallied to within a point in the final seconds before missed free throws and a costly inbounds pass sealed the loss.
"I feel terrible," said Bennett, who was 4 for 11 from the floor. "I wanted to go far into this tournament."
The Bears didn't have to go far to play, and now they're moving on.
Buoyed by the crowd support of a strong contingent so close to the Berkeley campus, Allen Crabbe had 19 points and nine rebounds and reserve Robert Thurman scored all 12 of his points on dunks. Even though UNLV was the higher seed and beat the Bears 76-75 in Berkeley on Dec. 9, the selection committee placed the Rebels only 50 miles from Cal's campus — and in the heart of the school's alumni base in technology-rich Silicon Valley.
"I don't buy the home-court theory because there are a lot of people there that didn't buy tickets to watch us. They bought tickets to watch basketball," Montgomery said. "But I will buy the theory that it was really great to be close to home because we had preparation time."
Sure seemed that way.
Rebels fans filled up about two sections, and the rest of the red-and-black faithful was sprinkled around the blue-and-gold-clad crowd. Cal's contingent let its presence be known, roaring to its feet at every chance.
The Rebels refused to use the location as an excuse. Instead, another early exit in the tournament provided enough for them to grumble about.
"This was our last game with each other so it's kind of disappointing," said UNLV sophomore Khem Birch, who had five points and four blocks. "But we'll move on. I can't wait for next year."
Justin Cobbs added 13 points and five rebounds, and Richard Solomon had 11 points and seven rebounds while playing with the kind of heart and hustle Montgomery has long preached. Cal outshot the Rebels 44 to 32 percent.
The Bears started the second half just the way they did the first — pushing the pace, swarming around in that zone defense and swishing shots with ease to go ahead 37-31 on a 3-pointer by Cobbs.
After the Rebels scored six straight, Cobbs and Crabbe led Cal's 8-0 spurt to go up 45-37, with both guards converting layups through traffic. Bennett made three free throws after getting fouled by Crabbe before Cobbs answered with another 3-pointer, getting a hard pat on his backside by Crabbe from the bench.
The Rebels then missed 16 shots in a row from the field until Mike Moser — who was hurt early in the first matchup — put back a rebound with 5:16 remaining. The tip ended a drought of 11:14 without a basket, and perhaps even more stunning was that Cal only led 52-46.
Thurman alone almost topped UNLV's output after halftime. The senior, who had 12 points over his previous five games, had almost as many field goals (five) in the second half as the entire Rebels team (eight).
The 6-foot-10 forward finished all his baskets for dunks and bullied Bennett — a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft — on both ends for all but the final few minutes.
"I just got really lucky because Justin and Allen really penetrated well," said Thurman, a perfect 6 for 6 from the floor. "And I did what most big guys are supposed to do."
By the time Thurman's last dunk went through, all UNLV could do was prolong the game with fouls.
The Bears broke down and gave up five straight points, including a three-point play that started when Bennett outmuscled Crabbe for a layup to slice Cal's cushion to 60-58 with 14.4 seconds remaining.
Cobbs and UNLV's Anthony Marshall each went 1 for 2 on free throws before Marshall hit a pair to trim Cal's lead to 62-61. The Rebels missed a chance to foul Cobbs and let precious seconds tick away before wrapping up Crabbe with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Crabbe made both shots, then Solomon intercepted a desperation inbounds pass near midcourt to seal the game for good.
Cal became the second 12th-seeded Pac-12 team to win in San Jose. Earlier in the day, conference tournament champion Oregon beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma State 68-55 in a second-round game in the Midwest Region.
"Shows you that our conference is tough," Cobbs said. "It's tough from top to bottom. Teams are playing well right now. So all the bad press we were getting before maybe wasn't true."