UNLV certainly wasn’t looking past Division II Grand Canyon on Friday night in its regular season opener at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Despite having a leg up on the Antelopes in terms of talent, the Rebels didn’t have the luxury of taking them lightly and still escaping with a win.
UNLV had seven scholarship players available, and in turn used up everything each of them had in an 83-66 victory to open up the Dave Rice era.
“Everyone saw that we were really winded in the first half,” Rice said. “We went into halftime and just talked about making use of the conditioning we’d done from the spring to the summer to the fall.”
The conditioning, without question, paid off. And that’s where we begin with the Seven Takeaways from Friday night.
1) Breaking down the wall.
About mid-way through the first half, the short-handed Rebels looked visibly winded, and a comfortable lead turned into a one-point edge heading into the half, 39-38.
Rice has preached the importance of his team playing its way into the shape that he desires, and the seven guys who dressed out on Friday took major strides in that department in the game’s final 20 minutes. Even though the execution was still a tad sloppy, the Rebels passed a toughness test in the eyes of their coaching staff by stomping on an overmatched opponent’s throat and running them out of the game.
UNLV out-scored Grand Canyon 44-28 in the second half.
2) Hawkins’ career night
Junior guard Justin Hawkins had eight points in a sound first half showing. But it wasn’t enough for his inactive teammates watching from the bench.
“Anthony (Marshall), Chace (Stanback) and Bryce (Jones) just told me I had to get even more aggressive going into the second half,” he said.
The result was a career-high 25 points, a career-high 38 minutes played, a career-high four 3-pointers made. Catching a theme here?
“I would say shocked, but I was just having fun, running up and down the floor, playing all of those minutes,” he said afterward. “I just felt the way I warmed up, the way I mentally prepared for the game, I felt comfortable going into it.”
In the second half, as Oscar Bellfield began having some cramping in his legs, Hawkins had no choice but to play. Without worrying about a short leash from the bench, he unloaded. He was the most aggressive with the ball as he’s been on any single night in his UNLV career. He looked confident stroking deep threes, and even more so in burying a few mid-range jumpers.
Moving forward, he may not ever again play 38 minutes in a night this season once the Rebels have a full complement of bodies, but he proved that he is worthy of extended looks off of the bench.
He also showed that he can be dependable with the ball while running the offense. Hawkins had zero turnovers on the night.
3) Moser only halfway there
First, the bad news: Sophomore UCLA transfer Mike Moser still looks pretty rusty on the offensive end after sitting out a year.
He had 16 points on Friday night, but his outside jumper looked forced and, at times, somewhat awkward. He admits that he’s still finding his rhythm within Rice’s offense.
“Once I’d seen how hot Justin was, I honestly just tried to stay out of the way,” he joked. “As for me, I was just trying to find my flow. I saw guys get hot, I tried to just sit back and do something else to help us out.”
That something else was rip down 20 rebounds.
The offense will come at some point. When Stanback returns Monday night, he’ll do more on the perimeter, which will allow Moser to do more of what he said he prefers: working from the inside out on offense.
But either way, he’s showing early on that he could be a consistent double-double threat.
4) Wallace both gutsy and streaky
Battling a pesky cartilage issue in his right knee that will cause soreness and swelling all season, senior guard Kendall Wallace played 38 much-needed minutes.
When healthy, Wallace’s previous career-high was 30.
Since his knee will have to be closely monitored the rest of the way, expect Rice to give him plenty of time off during practices over the next two days leading up to Monday’s rivalry showdown with Nevada-Reno.
On the side, though, also expect Wallace to keep working on his outside shot. His bread-and-butter weapon is still rounding back into form after he missed all of last season while recovering from ACL surgery in that same knee.
Wallace was just 2-of-10 from the floor and 2-of-9 from long range, but he looked much more confident shooting the ball Friday night than he did in last Tuesday’s exhibition against Washburn.
5) Gauging Karam
The key stretch for sophomore forward Karam Mashour got off to a so-so start.
In 11 minutes — mostly at small forward — he had two points, three rebounds and a pair of assists. His points came late in the second half via a two-handed dunk on the baseline. In the first half, though, when the game was much closer, he looked far from comfortable on the offensive end. The lowlight was an unsightly traveling violation in transition.
But he’ll still get opportunities to play even after Stanback returns. Athletically, Mashour still looks like he belongs on the floor, especially when the flow of the game hits a higher tempo. But right now, it looks like his best fit will be as an athletic-yet-undersized power forward behind Moser.
6) Thomas, Massamba back off when needed
Rice and his staff couldn’t stress enough to their players heading into Friday’s game the need to stay out of foul trouble.
As a team, UNLV only committed 13 in the game, which allowed Rice to not have to tinker with his lineups too much or get too risky.
Centers Quintrell Thomas and Brice Massmaba each had two fouls in the first half, but both finished the game with only three, as they were able to pick and choose their spots on the defensive end effectively after the break. That also appeared to give them more confidence on offense, as the duo combined for 22 points in 40 minutes.
7) While UNLV wasn’t looking ahead to Monday …
… clearly, UNR was.
Pegged as the preseason favorite in the WAC and as a potential Cinderella candidate among the mid-majors, the Wolf Pack opened its 2011-12 season with a big belly flop, losing, 68-46, to Missouri State on its home floor.
UNR was just 13-of-50 from the floor, 5-of-25 from deep and committed 14 turnovers across from only eight assists.
No one is questioning the Wolf Pack’s talent, but you have to wonder about the team’s mental makeup after seeing a performance like that against a team it should have dominated from start to finish.
Now it’s walking into a cauldron come Monday night. UNLV gets arguably its two best players back from brief suspensions, and UNR hasn’t defeated the Rebels since Nov. 26, 2005.
Rice’s club should be back on its home floor to start the week as heavy favorites to win its sixth straight in the series.