LAS VEGAS (AP) — Even when the shots were not falling, Arizona could always rely on its defense to pull out close games.
The Wildcats had a hard time stopping UNLV at all, much less at the end of the game, and now its long nonconference winning streak is over.
Struggling against UNLV’s length and athleticism, No. 3 Arizona lost to UNLV 71-67 Tuesday night, ending the Wildcats’ regular-season nonconference winning streak at 39 games.
“There are going to be some hard days at the McKale Center over the next 10 days,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of his team’s upcoming break. “We’re going to find out who really wants to play defense on this team.”
Facing the highest-ranked team to play at the Thomas and Mack Center since 1998, UNLV (8-3) refused to back down against an Arizona team that’s expected to make a deep March run.
The Rebels were the aggressor most of the game, rallying from an early deficit and making the big plays down the stretch against one of college basketball’s best closing teams to Arizona’s regular-season nonconference winning streak at 39 games.
UNLV overwhelmed Arizona on the glass, grabbing 16 more rebounds, including 14 offensive boards that the Rebels turned into 19 second-chance points.
The Rebels also made the plays when it counted, none bigger than McCaw’s steal from Stanley Johnson in the open court in the closing seconds. McCaw finished off the victory with a pair of free throws, sending the fans rushing onto the court.
“A fantastic win for our program,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We just keep getting better every single game.”
Arizona (12-1) had particular trouble stopping Wood and Vaughn. Those two combined to hit as many shots as some entire teams do against Arizona, finishing a combined 19 for 37.
The Wildcats had a rare off night on the glass and again struggled from the free-throw line, finishing 16 for 27. Accustomed to closing out tight games, Arizona came up short in that department against UNLV, with Brandon Ashley missing an open jumper and Johnson turning it over in the final minute.
Johnson had 13 points and 13 rebounds. McConnell finished with 14 points and seven rebounds for Arizona, which has more than a week off before playing again.
“For any coach, it’s hard to lose, but this was a much-needed game for us to step back and work on the things we need to work on, rekindle our fire defensively,” Miller said. “Winning on the road takes a great defensive effort and we were the furthest thing from that.”
Rice has spent the first two months of the season trying to find the identity of a team that includes five freshmen and a sophomore.
Playing one of the toughest stretches in program history figured to give him and the Rebels a better sense of where they stand.
UNLV already faced No. 14 Utah and has No. 10 Kansas next week, giving the Rebels a run of three top-15 opponents in 16 days for the first time in program history.
UNLV lost 59-46 to Utah and wasn’t expected to give Arizona much of a fight, pegged as a double-digit underdog (12 1-2 points) at home for the first time since 1995.
The Rebels looked like a good bet in the first half, going right at the Wildcats.
UNLV rallied from an eight-point deficit and was the more aggressive team, staying within 41-36 at halftime despite Arizona making 5 of 8 from 3-point range.
Miller didn’t mince words about his team’s effort just before going into the locker, saying UNLV was bigger, stronger, faster while adding: “We stink.”
The Rebels kept attacking the Wildcats, the rowdy crowd inside the Thomas and Mack Center rising with each athletic drive to the basket.
Arizona tried to make a run several times, but the Rebels were right there with them, answering with another athletic play around the rim.
The Wildcats lost super sub Rondae Hollis-Jefferson when he fouled out with 7:14 left and UNLV grabbed a 65-62 lead 3 minutes later when Vaughn scored on a difficult drive to the basket.
Vaughn stretched the lead to 68-63 on a jumper and Arizona, a strong finishing team all season, couldn’t come up with the big plays down the stretch this time.
“We just didn’t have it tonight,” McConnell said.
Arizona: Johnson and Jordan Cornish were called for double technical fouls midway through the first half. The two players had to be separated after a hard foul by Cornish on Johnson. … Center Kaleb Tarczewski was called for a Flagrant 1 foul for hitting Dwayne Morgan in the face with an elbow while trying to clear space after a rebound.
UNLV: The Rebels are 1-3 against the Pac-12 this season, with losses to Stanford, Arizona State and Utah.
UNLV hosts Southern Utah on Saturday.
Arizona hosts rival Arizona State on Jan. 4.
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