While swarmed by mobs of UNLV fans on the floor at the Orleans Arena on Saturday night, Mike Moser said that at least 35 people must have jabbed him in the ribs and screamed out boxer Muhammad Ali’s famous line “Shock the World!”
The Rebels did just that, to an extent, giving first-year coach Dave Rice the type of signature win that many coaches go entire careers without enjoying, upsetting No. 1 North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game, 90-80.
Just 24 hours after grinding out an ugly 66-55 victory over USC in a sleepy semifinal, the Rebels put on arguably the most memorable performance by any UNLV team since the 1990 national championship game.
Here’s a look at what happened to make that showing possible, and where the Rebels go from here in Saturday night’s Seven Takeaways.
1) Stanback’s career night
With a father who was born and raised in North Carolina and played football at UNC on the same defense that featured NFL legend Lawrence Taylor, UNLV senior forward Chace Stanback couldn’t have picked a better night for the best game of his life.
A day after he was pretty invisible in 17 minutes against the Trojans, Stanback struck early and often on both ends. He finished with a career-high 28 points, 10 rebounds (all defensive) and a stellar defensive effort against multiple UNC weapons, including star swingman Harrison Barnes and lanky-yet-deadly forward John Henson.
Throughout Stanback’s UNLV career, it’s never been exactly known what to expect from him in big games, but on Saturday, he was the player everyone expected when he transferred from UCLA following his freshman year. He didn’t just hit 10 shots and four 3-pointers; he was aggressive and confident on defense the entire game, both off of the bounce and as a spot-up shooter. By late in the second half, when UNLV could have opted to pull the ball out and milk as much clock as possible, he pulled the trigger on several potential daggers. Rice after the game said they’re shots he never wants Stanback passing up.
The key now for Stanback is consistency.
Last year, he had a huge Thanksgiving weekend en route to MVP honors as the Rebels swept the field at the 76 Classic in Anaheim. But that was the high point of his junior year. With a brutal stretch of tough road games coming up between now and Dec. 14, Stanback needs to remain a rock for UNLV on both ends of the floor.
2) Mission accomplished on defensive glass
While Stanback had 10 defensive rebounds, sophomore forward Mike Moser had 13 of UNLV’s 34. Meanwhile, North Carolina had only 11 offensive boards, giving the Rebels a 20-6 edge in second-chance points.
Given UNC’s talent- and size-rich front line, Rice pointed out on Friday night that his team would have to limit those second scoring opportunities, and the Rebels certainly did.
Moser’s effort was huge, as he posted his fourth double-double in seven games, adding 16 points to go with his 18 rebounds and six assists. In the process, he may have made himself a little bit of money down the road with the effort, as roughly 40 or 50 NBA scouts and executives were seated courtside.
3) Bellfield, Marshall have right idea
For as great as North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall is as a distributor—and he is one of the nation’s finest, without question—he doesn’t have the greatest reputation as an on-ball defender.
UNLV’s Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield knew that, clearly, and attacked the weakness in UNC’s backcourt.
Both of UNLV’s starting guards repeatedly penetrated UNC’s defense behind Marshall and kicked back out — or into the paint — to set up several open looks for the Rebels, who were 31-of-71 from the floor and 13-of-32 from deep on the night. In turn, the two combined for 12 assists, with Bellfield notching nine of those.
That also set up offensive opportunities of their own. Bellfield hit four threes, but also cashed a couple of nifty floaters en route to 16 points, while the highlight of the night for Marshall came in the first half on a vicious and-one dunk against Henson.
4) Preventing the storms
UNLV played a strong first half. UNC’s was so-so. The Rebels then opened the second half on a torrid 14-0 run.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” Anthony Marshall said. “We knew once we hit them, they were gonna hit us back and vice versa. We just tried to sustain it.”
Added Moser: “I think that’s the hardest we’ve played for a complete game, for 40 minutes, for sure. We had to do that to beat them.”
It was that type of play that kept UNC from really ever making any serious run back at all in the second half. The Rebels kept their foot on the Heels’ throats by staying scrappy on the boards and continuing to fight harder than them for loose balls.
For as talented as North Carolina is, it was clear throughout the night that in this match-up, UNLV was the hungrier team. On top of playing nearly flawless ball, UNLV would have to hold the emotional edge the whole way to come out with a win, and it did just that.
5) Harrison Who?
North Carolina had several guys who could have really done some damage against UNLV, but none left more to be desired than Barnes, the 6-foot-8 star sophomore and likely future NBA lottery pick.
Barnes started the night just 2-of-9 from the floor, then finished 6-of-16, with 15 points that looked on paper much more impressive than they actually were.
Stanback was one of a handful of Rebels to get his shot at the UNC star on the defensive end, and Barnes was frustrated all night. Just about every jumper Barnes took came with a hand in his face, and every drive to the hole was contested.
If UNLV can do that against Barnes, it should give the Rebels confidence that they can do the same against any star scorer they come across the rest of the way.
6) Also worth noting …
UNLV was 15-of-18 from the free throw line, which remains a silent-but-deadly strength for the Rebels in their last three games.
In that stretch, they are 57-69 (82.6 percent).
UNC was 20-of-33, and shot itself in the foot when the game was done in the second half with a handful of misses.
7) So … what’s next??
Well, here’s what’s known …
— UNLV will likely be ranked in both Top 25 polls come Monday morning, probably somewhere in the 15-20 range.
— Many more eyes nationally will now be on Rice & Co.
— The Rebels’ future non-conference opponents surely took notice of what happened on Saturday.
And the stretch of non-conference games UNLV has now is far from a cinch.
First up is Wednesday night at UC Santa Barbara, whose Thunderdome is one of the under-the-radar toughest places to play on the West Coast. San Diego State snuck out of there with an overtime victory on Saturday night, but UNLV, as many remember, fell at home last season to the Gauchos in an ugly affair.
“We have a group that’s incredibly grounded, and they’ve had success,” Rice said. “I do think it’s an advantage, as tough as it was to lose to Santa Barbara last year, the fact that we did lose to Santa Barbara last year.”
Focus for UNLV should be no problem, even after a win this big, and after the team gets Sunday off, Monday and Tuesday are sure to be humbling experiences on the practice floor for the team.
After that come games at Wichita State (next Sunday), against Cal State San Marcos at the Orleans (Dec. 7), at Wisconsin (Dec. 10), vs. UTEP (Dec. 14) and at Illinois in Chicago’s United Center (Dec. 17).
Right now, UNLV is 7-0 and has plenty of buzz behind it. At some point, though, there will be some losses peppered in and some adversity to overcome.
What’s key right now, though, is that this team, both emotionally and physically, looks to be better equipped to fight through some of that than recent Rebel squads.
“We don’t want one game to be the definition or to define our program,” Rice said. “It is a huge win for us, but what we want to be judged on is our consistency in our non-conference season, our conference season, over the course of years.”