All hands on deck as UNLV downs No. 22 Colorado State
Senior center Isaiah Cottrell hasn’t scored in nearly two months, but why should that matter?
Faced with an injury-shortened frontcourt rotation, UNLV head coach Kevin Kruger tabbed Cottrell late in Saturday’s game against Colorado State, and the Las Vegas native delivered, helping the Scarlet and Gray close out a stirring 66-60 win over the No. 22 team in the nation.
For a season that has had as many unexpected twists and turns as UNLV’s, it kind of makes sense that Cottrell would be called upon in one of the biggest victories.
An injury to starting forward Rob Whaley early in the second half left UNLV short one big man down the stretch. Though Cottrell has been used sparingly in recent months, Kruger went to his 6-foot-11 reserve in hopes that he could provide some defense around the basket.
Cottrell did that, and UNLV held the Rams to 2-of-7 shooting in the final six minutes to pull out the win.
D.J. Thomas took over offensively in the second half, scoring 18 of his game-high 23 points, and Luis Rodriguez made some clutch free throws to finish with 14 points. But those guys are expected to put their fingerprints all over the box score, as they start and regularly play 35 minutes per game.
Cottrell, on the other hand, has seen his playing time decrease over the course of the season, coinciding with Whaley’s rise. Cottrell did not play at all in two of the last three contests, staying on the bench against Fresno State (Feb. 14) and UNR (Feb. 17). He appeared to be on his way to another DNP on Saturday, until Whaley hit the floor after fighting for a defensive rebound.
Whaley was helped to the locker room, and after mixing and matching for most of the second half, Kruger went with Cottrell for the final five-plus minutes as UNLV fended off multiple CSU rally attempts.
Cottrell did not score and officially only notched one rebound, but his emergency efforts went beyond the stat line.
“He was bumping and getting rebounds, blocking shots, just playing hard,” Thomas said of Cottrell’s contributions. “Doing whatever it takes to win, whatever the team needed him to do.”
With less than four minutes to play and UNLV nursing a 54-49 lead, Colorado State attempted a transition alley-oop to forward Nique Clifford. The pass was broken up and the ball headed out of bounds, last touched by UNLV. Instead of giving up on the play, Cottrell leaped over the end line and tapped it back in to Rodriguez, saving a possession for the Scarlet and Gray.
Cottrell said he was prepared to play, even with his recent lack of playing time, and that his focus once Kruger called his number was giving full effort.
“The biggest thing you can control is your defense and your effort,” Cottrell said. “That’s exactly what I did, I tried to give as much effort and as much energy on defense as I could.”
Thomas handled the pressure-packed final minutes with poise beyond his freshman status. He connected on a mid-range jumper with two minutes left to extend UNLV’s lead to 56-51, and after CSU’s Josiah Strong hit a 3 to trim the lead to two points, Thomas went to the free-throw line and made both with 1:12 remaining.
Rodriguez then made six straight free throws to keep Colorado State at bay, and Thomas made another pair with eight second left to account for the final margin.
On the strength of consecutive wins, UNLV is now 16-10 overall and 9-5 in conference play. That has Kruger’s squad tied for third in the Mountain West standings, just one week after an implosive loss to UNR dropped them to seventh place.
Kruger had no update on Whaley’s status after the game, only offering that he’d be in store for a battery of medical tests on Sunday.
“Hopefully Rob’s ankle is just a little something that was more precautionary than anything,” Kruger said.
With UNLV suddenly back in the Mountain West race, having Whaley back would be a huge boost. In the meantime, guys like Cottrell are ready to step up to help keep the season alive.
“You never know when your number is going to get called,” Cottrell said.