BERKELEY -- Less than two seconds were on the clock when the ball took flight with Cal clinging to a one-point lead.
"I saw it was going to be an air ball," said UNLV senior forward Quintrell Thomas, "so I just tried to go get it as fast as I could."
Indeed, Anthony Marshall's shot was short and an entire Haas Pavilion held its collective breath.
"I should have went out and got that rebound," said Cal junior forward Richard Solomon. "I was boxing out and I should have went for it. We have to be more physical on the defensive end. We have to get the ball out of the air."
Instead, Thomas plucked the ball and went up immediately, laying it on off the glass for the go-ahead basket…and Solomon was called for the foul. The air went out of the announced gathering of 8,724.
"I saw the guy was in his face so I assumed that if it was going anywhere, it was going short," Thomas added. "I was surprised I beat the…clock, though."
There was 1.2 seconds left to play and Thomas wisely missed the free throw, eating up half of one second by the time Cal rebounded the miss, so by the time the Golden Bears could inbound there was .7 of one second to play. Ballgame. After 13 ties and seven lead changes.
"Sometimes you've just got to escape, and that's what we came out here and did. Of course, it was a big one for us."
No. 21-ranked UNLV 76, Cal 75.
"Found a way," said Runnin' Rebels coach Dave Rice. "Sometimes, basketball just comes down to one play, period. We were fortunate, but at the same time we made our luck and we were at the right spot at the right time."
For UNLV (7-1), it was gut-check time, considering the Rebels lost preseason All-American junior forward Mike Moser to a dislocated right elbow in a scrum for a loose ball less than five minutes into the game.
Forward Anthony Bennett, who might be the best freshman in the country and who flashes 21-year-old glimpses of former UNLV Wooden Award winner Larry Johnson, stepped up with a double-double of 25 points and 13 rebounds in 35 minutes. His baseline dunk late in the game shook the rafters and harkened not only L.J. of old but a more recent vintage of Blake Griffin.
"He's pretty good, 25 and 13 speaks for itself," Solomon said. "We could have done a better job on him. He made a lot of plays by out-hustling us, and he was more physical."
Bennett was complimentary of Solomon was well after he tied a career high with 14 points and added eight rebounds. Solomon, though, missed all four of his free-throw attempts.
"He's real nice," Bennett said of Solomon. "He has nice post moves, has a great shot. He's a real nice player."
UNLV sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, meanwhile, added a career-high 22 points, including a pair of rally-stemming three-pointers.
For Cal (6-2), it was a learning experience. Had the Bears beaten the Rebels, Cal would have made a push toward the rankings.
Cal was just 15 of 28 from the free-throw line and, at one point, was a backbreaking 3-14.
"We got to the line and didn't get anything out of it," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. "That's hard psychologically. Free throws killed us. We just missed free throws and we can't afford to do it in a game like that."
Nor could they afford three fouls on leading scorer Allen Crabbe in the first half. Crabbe, who finished with a Cal-high 18 points, did not play the final 6:49 of the first half after picking up foul No. 3 on a flagrant 1 for throwing an elbow at Marshall's head.
The game was tied at 28-28 at the time and UNLV closed the first half on a 17-10 run with Crabbe on the bench.
"He flopped," Crabbe said. "I didn't even touch him. If I did it wasn't much. He came up into me and I tried to swing around and he was right there. I feel like it was a bad call but I can't do anything about it now."
Rather, Crabbe carried the Bears in the second half. His free throw with 38.9 seconds to go gave Cal a brief 73-72 lead.
Then came Bennett's monster dunk before junior guard Justin Cobbs drove to the hole, stopped in the key, fired up a shot that missed and was fouled by Marshall with 11.4 seconds to play.
Cobbs drained both and Cal had a fleeting lead. All of which set up the final, harried play with Marshall bringing the ball up court and shooting short from the key. Enter Thomas, who could not remember what play was actually called.
"We didn't run the play, that's for sure," said Thomas, who had all of four points, but six rebounds. "But it ended up working out fine."
At least, it did for UNLV.
"One of our Achilles' heel is giving up offensive rebounds," Montgomery said. "We're not reacting all the time. Defensively we got what we wanted. We got an air ball, in fact.
"Either we fell asleep or we were mismatched."
Said Crabbe: "It hurts because we had made a big defensive play and we were right there. There were so many other things that could have happened. It was a perfect day to show what we could do and it came down to one play."
It just went the other way.