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Late foul dooms UNLV against Wichita State

UNLV basketball coach Kevin Kruger could have blamed the officiating Sunday night after a 74-73 loss to Wichita State at T-Mobile Arena. Or at least acknowledged that a pair of questionable calls late in the second half may have affected the outcome of a game the Rebels led by 11 points.

But he opted not to, and instead credited Wichita State senior guard Tyson Etienne, who made the game-winning free throws with 3.4 seconds remaining en route to a game-high 28 points.

“He hit big shots. Stepping to the line down one with a make-or-break situation, that’s a tough responsibility,” Kruger said. “You’ve still got to step up and make them. And he did.”

Rebels guard Keshon Gilbert converted the go-ahead putback layup with 5.5 seconds left, but was whistled for the blocking foul 35 feet from the basket that sent Etienne to the free-throw line. UNLV did not attempt a shot on its final possession and a harmless skirmish unfolded at center court as the game ended, underscoring the emotional toll of the last-second loss in the Roman Main Event consolation game.

Senior guard Jordan McCabe was also whistled for a touch foul — his fifth — with 2:14 to play while fighting through a down screen, ending his best performance for the Rebels thus far: 11 points, eight assists, four steals and just one turnover.

But McCabe remained optimstic after the loss, in part because UNLV (3-2) had its best offensive showing of the season — converting a season-high 49 percent of its field goals, including 47.4 percent from 3-point range. The offense did stagnate late in the second half and the Rebels didn’t make a field goal for 10 minutes, settling for 10 free throws instead.

Yet “everybody was very very unselfish,” McCabe said. “It wasn’t like the first three games. We didn’t look the same offensively. I thought we looked a lot better and we’re going to continue to build off of that.”

McCabe helped engineer a fluid and efficient offensive outing during which the ball and players moved throughout the course of lengthy possessions. Senior wing Bryce Hamilton scored a team-high 18, but he wasn’t forced to isolate as often while the shot clock dwindled.

Senior guard Mike Nuga probed the paint and attacked the basket to score 13. Gilbert and Josh Baker came off the bench to score eight apiece. Senior center Royce Hamm anchored another stout defensive effort.

But Etienne found his shooting stroke in the second half, negating everything that UNLV did well.

The reigning American Athletic Conference co-player of the year made five second-half triples, including a contested one at the top of the key with 1:41 to play to propel the Shockers (4-1) to a one-point lead. Teammate Ricky Council IV added a transition layup on the ensuing possession.

But Hamilton made two free throws and Gilbert followed his miss to give the Rebels a one-point lead.

Etienne said he didn’t expect a whistle on Wichita State’s final offensive possession considering the game was in Las Vegas, but noted that he was grateful for the call.

McCabe and Kruger both praised Gilbert’s play anyway.

“He grew up a lot tonight. I’m proud of him and everybody else that was out there,” McCabe said. “Everybody steps up when it’s time and Keshon did that.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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