LAS VEGAS Faced with the task of defeating a team it desperately wants to avoid meeting in this week's Mountain West Conference Tournament, the Utah basketball team nearly pulled off a huge upset Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
In the end, though, it turned out to be the same game we've seen a dozen times this year a Ute loss that came down to the final minute.
This time the Utes fell to UNLV 70-63 as Rebel guard Curtis Terry celebrated Senior Day with 22 points and 10 assists, hitting several key baskets.
The loss dropped the Utes into sixth place in the MWC at 7-9, as Air Force grabbed the No. 5 spot with a home win over San Diego State. The Utes will open with New Mexico on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. MDT in the final game of the first round. If the Utes win, they'll likely play the Rebels on their home court in the second round.
Utah center Luke Nevill dominated for much of the game, scoring 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting in his third straight game off the bench. Johnnie Bryant scored 12 points off the bench, and Carlon Brown added 10 in a solid overall game.
"It seems like we play that game, every game," said Brown. "We get right there with everybody. We can play with everybody. It's just a matter of closing the game out."
This time the Utes clawed back from a dismal start that saw them miss 11 of their first 12 shots and trail by 10 points midway through the first half.
Utah actually led at halftime by one and held a 5-point lead with 13 minutes left. But with their home crowd of 12,366 cheering them on, the Rebels came back and, with less than a minute and a half left, the score was tied at 61-61.
However, the Utes allowed the Rebels two offensive rebounds on the go-ahead basket and, after a big steal by former Riverton High star Joe Darger, Terry's 3-pointer with 38 seconds left was the dagger.
"I thought we took control of the game but let it slip away," said first-year Ute coach Jim Boylen. "They made some huge plays. The story of the game was the tough, guarded shots they made."
Following a Bryant 3-pointer and a free throw by Nevill, the Utes led 44-39 with 12:47 left. The Utes still led 46-44 when the Rebels made their first big shot as Terry swished a fall-away 3-pointer from the right corner as the shot clock expired.
Two more big shots came with the Utes leading 50-49, as Matt Shaw and Terry hit back-to-back 3-pointers to push the Rebels' lead to five.
Perhaps the biggest basket of the game came with 1:23 left and this one was the Utes' mistake.
With the score tied at 61, Wink Adams, who had been held in check by the Utes all day, missed a 3-pointer from the left corner. The ball barely hit the rim and fell into the hands of Rene Rougeau, who missed a follow shot. However, the Utes didn't block out and Corey Bailey came flying in with a follow dunk to put the Rebels up for good.
The Utes still had a chance and, after a timeout, they worked the ball into Nevill, who got the ball on the baseline and was closely guarded by two Rebels. All of a sudden, Darger just snatched the ball right out of Nevill's hands. That led to Terry's 3-pointer that made it 66-61.
"I had the ball and was looking to skip it and was kind of trapped in the corner," he said. "I was more focused on where I was going to throw it, and that threw me off a bit."The Utes had one last chance when Brown scored on a drive and was fouled with 23 seconds left to cut the deficit to 66-63. However, Brown missed the free throw, and the Rebels finished things off with four straight free throws.