UNLV forward Mike Moser (43) covers his face during the second half as the Runnin' Rebels exit the NCAA Tournament after Thursday's loss to California. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)
San Jose, Calif. — Four straight trips to the NCAA tournament, four straight opening-game losses.
While UNLV seems headed in the right direction, it's not all the way back just yet.
Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 15 points and freshman NBA prospect Anthony Bennett shook off a poor start to finish with 15 points and 10 rebounds as the fifth-seeded Runnin' Rebels exited early again, losing 64-61 to No. 12 seed California on Thursday night.
"We're bitterly disappointed," second-year coach Dave Rice said.
The Golden Bears (21-11) held the Rebels (25-10) without a basket for more than 11 minutes in the second half. Cal confused UNLV with 40 minutes of zone defense, something coach Mike Montgomery couldn't recall doing since he was at Montana from 1977-86.
The dominant defensive stretch turned a tie game into a nine-point lead. Cal withstood a late UNLV push for its first tournament win since 2010.
The Rebels rallied to within a point in the final seconds before missed free throws and a costly inbounds pass sealed the loss.
"I feel terrible," said Bennett, who was 4 for 11 from the floor. "I wanted to go far into this tournament."
The Bears didn't have to go far to play, and now they're moving on.
Buoyed by the crowd support of a strong contingent so close to the Berkeley campus, Allen Crabbe had 19 points and nine rebounds and reserve Robert Thurman scored all 12 of his points on dunks. Even though UNLV was the higher seed and beat the Bears 76-75 in Berkeley on Dec. 9, the selection committee placed the Rebels only 50 miles from Cal's campus — and in the heart of the school's alumni base in technology-rich Silicon Valley.
"I don't buy the home-court theory because there are a lot of people there that didn't buy tickets to watch us. They bought tickets to watch basketball," Montgomery said. "But I will buy the theory that it was really great to be close to home because we had preparation time."
Sure seemed that way.
Rebels fans filled up about two sections, and the rest of the red-and-black faithful was sprinkled around the blue-and-gold-clad crowd. Cal's contingent let its presence be known, roaring to its feet at every chance.
The Rebels refused to use the location as an excuse. Instead, another early exit in the tournament provided enough for them to grumble about.
"This was our last game with each other so it's kind of disappointing," said UNLV sophomore Khem Birch, who had five points and four blocks. "But we'll move on. I can't wait for next year."
Justin Cobbs added 13 points and five rebounds, and Richard Solomon had 11 points and seven rebounds while playing with the kind of heart and hustle Montgomery has long preached. Cal outshot the Rebels 44 to 32 percent.
The Bears started the second half just the way they did the first — pushing the pace, swarming around in that zone defense and swishing shots with ease to go ahead 37-31 on a 3-pointer by Cobbs.
After the Rebels scored six straight, Cobbs and Crabbe led Cal's 8-0 spurt to go up 45-37, with both guards converting layups through traffic. Bennett made three free throws after getting fouled by Crabbe before Cobbs answered with another 3-pointer, getting a hard pat on his backside by Crabbe from the bench.
The Rebels then missed 16 shots in a row from the field until Mike Moser — who was hurt early in the first matchup — put back a rebound with 5:16 remaining. The tip ended a drought of 11:14 without a basket, and perhaps even more stunning was that Cal only led 52-46.
Thurman alone almost topped UNLV's output after halftime. The senior, who had 12 points over his previous five games, had almost as many field goals (five) in the second half as the entire Rebels team (eight).
The 6-foot-10 forward finished all his baskets for dunks and bullied Bennett — a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft — on both ends for all but the final few minutes.
"I just got really lucky because Justin and Allen really penetrated well," said Thurman, a perfect 6 for 6 from the floor. "And I did what most big guys are supposed to do."
By the time Thurman's last dunk went through, all UNLV could do was prolong the game with fouls.
The Bears broke down and gave up five straight points, including a three-point play that started when Bennett outmuscled Crabbe for a layup to slice Cal's cushion to 60-58 with 14.4 seconds remaining.
Cobbs and UNLV's Anthony Marshall each went 1 for 2 on free throws before Marshall hit a pair to trim Cal's lead to 62-61. The Rebels missed a chance to foul Cobbs and let precious seconds tick away before wrapping up Crabbe with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Crabbe made both shots, then Solomon intercepted a desperation inbounds pass near midcourt to seal the game for good.
Cal became the second 12th-seeded Pac-12 team to win in San Jose. Earlier in the day, conference tournament champion Oregon beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma State 68-55 in a second-round game in the Midwest Region.
"Shows you that our conference is tough," Cobbs said. "It's tough from top to bottom. Teams are playing well right now. So all the bad press we were getting before maybe wasn't true."
Marquette 59, Davidson 58
In Lexington Kentucky, Davidson tried to do everything it could to close out an upset of No. 3 seed Marquette in the NCAA tournament.
What the Wildcats failed to do was close in defensively on Vander Blue, whose driving layup with a second remaining capped the Golden Eagles' comeback victory in a game that Davidson had in its grasp.
The 14th-seeded Wildcats squandered a nine-point lead with less than seven minutes to play, snapping their 17-game winning streak and ending their hopes of making another deep run in March. But the way they were eliminated was what bothered players the most.
"You can tell by our faces we're not too happy about it," forward Jake Cohen said. "It's just devastating."
Leading 49-40 with 61/2 minutes remaining, the Wildcats (26-8) answered Marquette's attempts to rally with two free throws each by Cohen and Nik Cochran and one by J.P. Kuhlman. De'Mon Brooks' layup with 41 seconds left made it 56-51 and forced Marquette to shoot 3-pointers if it wanted to get back in the game.
That's not the Golden Eagles' strong suit, but Blue and Jamil Wilson each made one down the stretch to close to 58-57. Then came Brooks' errant inbounds pass that sailed long and set up Blue's game-winning drive past Cohen.
"I got switched onto him and he got by me," said Cohen, who had 20 points. "Hindsight's 20-20. It's really easy to look back now and draw up something different. He made a big play and made a big shot."
Brooks and Cochran both scored 11 for Davidson, making its second consecutive tournament appearance. The Wildcats became tournament darlings in 2008 when Stephen Curry led them to the regional finals as a No. 10 seed.
The comeback spoiled Davidson's upset bid and halted the nation's longest winning streak. The Wildcats entered the game shooting nearly 47 percent from the field, 37 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.
Their numbers weren't as good on Thursday, but the Wildcats thought they had enough.
"We emptied our tank today," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "Credit Marquette, they made three plays down the stretch."
Early on, though, the Golden Eagles (24-8) couldn't hit from anywhere.
As Marquette was missing 10 of its first 11 attempts, Davidson came out hot, especially from the perimeter. Chris Czerapowicz, Kuhlman and Cohen all made 3-pointers in the Wildcats' 12-2 start.
Butler 68, Bucknell 56
In Lexington, Rotnei Clarke scored 11 of his 17 points in the last 8:44, Andrew Smith had a double-double with a career-high 16 rebounds and 14 points and Butler withstood a late rally from upset-minded Bucknell. Roosevelt Jones added 14 points for the sixth-seeded Bulldogs, who watched an 11-point lead turn into a 6-point deficit before regaining control of the game for good.
Butler has now won 11 of its last 13 games in the NCAA tournament, the only two losses coming in the 2010 and 2011 title games.
"The similarity is they're Butler," coach Brad Stevens said. "They have some mettle. They have some intestinal fortitude built up over time. The difference is just the people. We have to play a little bit differently on both sides of floor because of it.
"But it truly is a Butler team, which I feel good about."
Joe Willman had a career-high 20 points for Bucknell. But the 11th-seeded Bison couldn't overcome an off day from two-time Patriot League Player of the year Mike Muscala, who had nine points, only the second time this season he's failed to reach double figures. Going almost five minutes without scoring late in the second half didn't help, either.
Neither did Butler's considerable edge at the foul line. The Bulldogs made 25 of 28 free throws — 18 of 20 in the final 4:43 alone — while Bucknell went to the line just eight times.
"I just think they've played in so many big games, they're not the type of team that's going to get rattled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.