For three-quarters of Monday night’s rivalry showdown against Nevada-Reno at the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV showed that it is making rapid progress in learning how to be a successful running basketball team.
The final 10 minutes showed that there is still plenty to learn.
But learning with a 71-67 victory to improve to 2-0 under first-year coach Dave Rice was much more pleasant for the Rebels than the alternative.
As UNR switched to a zone defense late in the game while facing a double-digit deficit, a bit of malaise appeared to wash over UNLV, as the crowd energy faded and the guys on the floor let the Wolf Pack back into what once seemed like a blowout.
UNLV did just enough at the end to hold on to its edge, with the dagger coming in the form of Justin Hawkins’ clinching free throw with 3.3 seconds remaining after UNR couldn’t connect on a game-tying 3-point attempt moments earlier.
“I think it’s a deal where we’re still learning how to become a running team, and part of being a running team is the mental conditioning side of that,” Rice said.
Here, now, are the Seven Takeaways from Monday night, which marked UNLV’s sixth victory in a row over its in-state rival.
1) Back so soon?
UNLV’s biggest emotional spark came from sophomore forward Carlos Lopez, who played 18 minutes less than two weeks after suffering a severe right ankle sprain that was expected to sideline him for possibly a month.
Lopez, who credited team trainer Dave Tomchek for helping get him back so fast, practiced some in full-court drills on Sunday evening, though hardly looked completely comfortable.
On Monday, adrenaline clearly helped the cause, as he was needed after senior center Brice Massamba got in early foul trouble.
Lopez’s most memorable moment came in the first half with a two-handed dunk in transition off of a no-look feed from Justin Hawkins. In the second half, he played the role of zone buster with a couple of key buckets, and finished the night with nine points, four rebounds and four blocks.
The question for many now is: Can he continue to regularly block out the pain on an ankle that is still not close to 100 percent?
“Right now, I’m not really thinking about it,” he said afterwards. “Maybe when I get home and lay down in my bed I’m going to feel it, but it came to a point that I decided to just stop thinking about it.”
2) Welcome back
In his first action back from a two-game suspension stemming from his offseason DUI arrest, senior forward Chace Stanback looked pretty comfortable in his new role at small forward.
He was 5-of-11 from the floor with 12 points and four rebounds, but what was most impressive was how comfortable Stanback looked within Rice’s offense, especially in terms of moving without the ball. He was able to sniff out his spots and set up several assist opportunities for teammates.
3) A consistent weapon?
Justin Hawkins’ career night last Friday, which involved scoring 25 points in 38 minutes for the then-shorthanded Rebels saw the junior guard playing a more confident brand of basketball — especially on the offensive end — than he had at any previous point in his UNLV career.
But could it carry over when UNLV once again had a full rotation and his minutes went back to normal?
Hawkins answered that with a resounding ‘yes’ on Monday, scoring a team-high 13 points in 24 minutes. He also had two rebounds, two assists and no turnovers.
But it didn’t take Hawkins long to look like that confident offensive threat that he was in Friday’s second half. If that guy is here to stay, consider it a major early bonus for the Rebels.
4) This is just scratching the surface?
There’s a decent chance that sophomore UCLA transfer Mike Moser may have gone for 20 rebounds for a second straight game if it weren’t for early second half foul trouble.
Though he was limited to 23 minutes, UNLV’s starting power forward had eight points, 11 boards and five steals in another outstanding performance that has many wondering how high his ceiling really is.
That’s because, for a third straight game, Moser still didn’t look entirely comfortable on the offensive end. But he does so much so well right now that, well, it really doesn’t matter. His rebounding looks effortless, and if it keeps up, it will eliminate an issue UNLV has dealt with in recent years against opponents with big front lines — such as UNR. UNLV out-rebounded the Wolf Pack 47-40.
5) Some old habits die hard
UNLV shot its way out of games more than a few times last season, and had a tendency to rely too much on the 3-pointer here and there.
The Rebels’ 26 attempts from deep on Monday weren’t necessarily excessive, but late in the game, they opted for those shots a little too early in the shot clock when it may have been a better idea to milk some time and protect a big lead.
Rice cited it as all part of the growing process within his new system. The feel for when to fire at will and when to harness it some will develop over time. Remember, this team is only two games in.
On the other hand, UNLV defended just as hard as it did over the past several years under Lon Kruger, as UNR was just 19-of-59 from the floor and only registered six assists. The Rebels turned the Wolf Pack into essentially a one-on-one team.
6) Don’t be so hard on yourself
Junior guard Anthony Marshall was pretty critical of his play on his Twitter feed after the game, but outside of his shooting, everything actually looked pretty good.
Marshall played 32 active minutes, was integral defensively and hit seven of eight free throw attempts — including a few in crunch time. He also had eight rebounds, seven assists and only two turnovers.
Other than an awkward runner in the first half, Marshall really didn’t take a bad shot all night. In other words, it wasn’t an awful 0-for-7 performance … if that makes any sense.
7) Killer stretch
Though the opponents’ names might not pop off of the page at you, three games in six days is no walk in the park. UNLV will host Canisius Thursday night, Morgan State Sunday night, then Cal Poly next Tuesday night.
This is all leading up to next Friday’s Las Vegas Invitational semifinal match-up with Southern Cal at the Orleans Arena, and then a possible meeting with No. 1 North Carolina 24 hours later.
That will make it interesting to see how hard Rice and his staff ride these guys in practice over the next couple of days.