Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Air Force Falcons 72 at UNLV Rebels 77 (NCAA Basketball, Mountain West) - February 12, 2019

After a wild weekend in Milwaukee, the family and I boarded a late Monday flight to Las Vegas, escaping the winter storm bearing down on the city. The purpose of heading to Sin City was to see the Leafs play the Golden Knights as part of my Toronto on the Road quest, but there was another game a couple of days before that caught my eye, namely UNLV hosting Air Force in college hoops.

The Rebels play out of the Thomas & Mack Center, located on campus near the corner of Paradise and Tropicana. It is walking distance from the MGM Grand, but I wouldn't recommend walking anywhere off the Strip in Vegas; take a cab or Uber if you have no car. The arena is named for two prominent Nevada bankers, E. Parry Thomas and Jerome D. Mack, who donated the funds for the feasibility and land studies. In 2001, Cox Pavilion was added to the complex and it is used by UNLV women's basketball and volleyball teams. Unfortunately, neither was home during my stay.

UNLV was a national force for many years and the Thomas & Mack Center was built to house their rabid fans. Their coach for all those seasons was Jerry "The Shark" Tarkanian, who chewed towels while on the sideline. He led the team to their only national title in 1990, beating Duke by a record 30 points in the championship game. There is a statue of Tark (above) near the ticket windows that includes a list all of his accomplishments as a coach.

Tarkanian left UNLV in 1992 amidst accusations of recruiting violations, and since then, the program has struggled. Even so, the Rebels are the 5th winningest program in NCAA basketball, with a .696 winning percentage that puts them just ahead of UCLA. But that record will continue to drop, as will the number of fans who attend. There were about 7,000 on hand, much less than the 18,000 capacity. That led to empty concourses early on and open seating if you so wished.

There are a few items of note in the single concourse. First, Tarkanian's chair and trademark towel.

The venue also hosted boxing matches and Oscar de la Hoya's trunks are among the memorabilia on display.

The arena is also home to the NBA Summer League, and there are photos of current stars such as Russell Westbrook, who played in the league back in 2009.

Inside, Rebel Red is dominates the seating bowl. The floor is impressive, with the Las Vegas skyline, updated for the Ferris wheel that debuted in 2014.

The setup is typical for arenas of this size. Tickets are not cheap, starting at $21 at the box office and going up from there. I found a scalper with a pair of seasons that Sharpy and I got for $15, and we used the open-seating policy to sit where we wanted.

Of course, there are ushers, but they are really just looking to keep people out of the best seats; you can sit anywhere in the upper bowl and in most lower bowl seats as well.

Although this is a university facility, there are a couple of bars where you can sit and have a $10 beer before or during the game. Concessions are pretty basic, but not significantly overpriced, with burgers going for $5 for example.

Retired numbers are along one sideline...

...along with team accomplishments, including a banner for Tarkanian. I did not see the championship trophy on display.

Overall, Thomas & Mack Center is an arena that is surviving the decline of the program that built it. Hard to imagine, but when the Runnin' Rebels were winning all the time, the place was sold out game after game. Now that the team is just another mid-major, fans stay away. This is great if you like space, but it does hurt the atmosphere somewhat. Still, if you are in Vegas, you can check it out to get away from the crowds.

The Game

Air Force came in as 9-point underdogs but played a smart game in the first half, trading leads with the Rebels. An 8-3 run at the end of the half gave the Falcons a 40-36 lead.

We moved down to the lower bowl for the second half, and UNLV responded with a quick 5 points to eliminate that halftime advantage. The teams again went back and forth (there were 11 ties and 16 lead changes during the contest) but UNLV used a 12-5 run to take a 71-64 lead. That did not faze the Falcons, who ran off 8 straight including 2 consecutive treys, to go up by a point with 59 seconds left.

When Kris Clyburn missed a three for the Rebels, it looked good for the Falcons but Noah Robotham grabbed the offensive board and was immediately fouled. The Rebels were in the bonus, and Robotham made both ends of the 1-and-1 to retake the lead with 26 seconds left. Air Force missed a layup and UNLV got the rebound. Another foul was followed by two makes, giving the Falcons one final chance to tie, but a last-second heave by Caleb Morris missed. The Falcons again fouled Robotham, who sank both of the shots from the charity stripe to make the final 77-72. So Air Force covered at least.

A great game from start to finish, with all those lead changes and only 23 fouls. Basketball is so much more entertaining when the refs err on the side of letting them play rather than calling every potential infraction.



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