After all, Darger is the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder and top post defender. And the Rebels looked to be on the verge of perhaps a crushing home defeat to the Falcons.
Turned out, however, that Darger's 6½ minute break on the bench might have been a blessing in disguise.
With most of his teammates exhausted from defending the Falcons' backcuts in a very physical contest, it was the well-rested Darger who scored UNLV's final eight points, including a pair of key 3-pointers, to help rally the Rebels (19-5, 8-2) to a very hard-fought 58-51 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"I just sat on the bench for a while and thought about things," Darger said. "I knew when I came back in I'd be ready to shoot and that I would have fresh legs."
UNLV was clinging to a 47-46 lead when Darger re-entered the game with 4:27 remaining. The Rebels extended their lead to 50-46 on their next possession when guard Wink Adams took advantage of a mis-match with 6-foot-8 Air Force center Keith Maren and drove past him to the hoop for a basket, drawing a foul by Maren in the process. Adams then sank the free throw to complete the three-point play.
Still, most of the 10,506 were holding their breath as hot-shooting Air Force (9-of-19 3-pointers, 47.4 percent) came back down the court.
"We just knew that we needed a stop," Adams said. "I think everybody just dug deep, guarded the backcuts and stayed on their people."
The result was a critical 35-second shot clock violation by the normally efficient Falcons.
During the ensuing media timeout, UNLV coach Lon Kruger drew up a play designed for Darger to swing around off a Corey Bailey screen and shoot a 3-pointer from the right corner. Darger drained the trey to increase UNLV's to seven, 53-46.
"Coach drew up a good play," Darger said. "Corey set a good screen and I came off it open. Then Curtis (Terry) got it to me on time. I was in rhythm and just knocked it down."
After Air Force swingman Andrew Henke nailed his fourth trey of the night to cut the lead to four again, 53-49, with 1:17 left, it was Darger's long 3-pointer from just to the right of the key with 38.7 seconds left that sealed the victory for the Rebels.
"That play wasn't the one that we had drawn up," Darger said of the basket that went through the net with just two seconds left on the shot clock. "But I knew if I took just one dribble and pulled up … I knew I'd be open. I just had to shoot it high enough. It went in and fell for me so it worked out."
Darger finished with 11 points which tied him with senior forward Corey Bailey for second on the Rebels behind Adams' 13 points.
Guard Rene Rougeau (5 steals) led a strong defensive effort by the Rebels who unlike their previous meeting in Colorado Springs with the Falcons held their own physically in a loosely-called game that at times could have passed for rugby.
"That definitely was a dog-fight," Rougeau said. "You have to have so much respect for Air Force. I don't know what it is with them. They just make you work so hard. We're just glad we could get this one."
Darger helps Rebels fly by Air Force
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