As soon as 21st-ranked UNLV put the finishing touches on an 85-68 rout of Cal on Friday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center, several of the Rebels quickly showered and bolted out of the building to head out of town for a much-needed Christmas break.
They certainly earned it, continuing to pad an already impressive non-conference résumé with a dominating performance against one of the best teams the Pac-12 conference has to offer.
“I knew at shoot-around today that we would play well,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “You never know for sure if you’re going to win or not, you’re very confident going into games, but we were locked into what we were trying to do. Our guys knew exactly how good Cal is, how tough they are, and once again it was a collaborative effort much like last Saturday at Illinois.”
And just as they did in their huge road win over the Illini in Chicago, the Rebels got rolling on Friday thanks to their defense.
Cal (10-3) threw a bit of an unexpected wrinkle in its game plan, starting 5-foot-11 guard Brandon Smith in place of 6-foot-9 forward David Kravish, going with a four-guard look.
In turn, it helped UNLV (13-2). Especially junior guard Anthony Marshall.
On defense, it played right into the Rebels’ defensive switches, as they avoided mismatches for almost the entire first half. Meanwhile, Marshall highlighted a smooth, consistent offensive attack, scoring 13 of his game-high 22 points before halftime. He did it in a variety of ways, hitting shots from the outside and driving to the hole against Cal’s depleted interior.
“I have great teammates, and I had a feeling that Cal would sit on the shooters and try to sit on our big men, so that allowed me to get in the lanes and get myself going early,” he said. “After that, I just had fun playing basketball.”
Around Marshall, everyone got in on the act early. Both Chace Stanback and Mike Moser hit big perimeter shots, while Oscar Bellfield played 17 minutes in the first half, recording nine assists across from zero turnovers. UNLV went to the halftime locker room off of a Stanback three in the closing seconds that gave the Rebels a 46-26 lead, with a crowd of 15,188 — easily the biggest at the Mack this season — in a frenzy.
The most impressive part of UNLV’s defensive attack in the first half was how successfully it took away the 3-point arc against a team that, entering the game, was shooting an impressive 43.8 percent as a team from long range.
It’s an area in which UNLV has struggled for a good portion of this season, but has found some consistent success of late. In the first half of Friday’s win, Cal was just 2-of-6 from deep. Rice after the game credited his team’s perimeter defenders shutting down the Bears’ outside game without needing constant help.
“We’re trying to put more individual accountability on guys,” Rice said. “We’re obviously trapping a little bit less than the Runnin’ Rebels did last year. We’re trying to put a little more individual accountability on guys, but again, the foundation was laid by coach (Lon) Kruger, and we’re just trying to build on that.”
The Bears ultimately knocked down a few threes in the second half, and took advantage of about a five-minute stretch mid-way through the frame when the Rebels let off the gas, but it was hard to blame UNLV for taking it easy with the game practically in the bag.
After all, UNLV now heads into its first four-day stretch between games since the beginning of the season. In what’s been a grueling 15-game run leading up to the holiday weekend, the Rebels looked surprisingly fresh on Friday for a team that has already built an impressive résumé by playing one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules.
Now, there is finally a window of opportunity to catch some air.
The Rebels get the weekend to relax, and aren’t due back until Monday evening for a practice. They’ll play at the Mack against Central Arkansas (5-6) on Wednesday night, then have manageable road games on New Year’s Eve at Hawaii (5-5) and then five days later at Cal State Bakersfield (6-6). That leads into an eight-day break before Mountain West Conference play begins on Jan. 14 at San Diego State (11-2).
“We have played a pretty strong schedule and not had many breaks, and that’s been a credit to our guys that we have been able to continue to improve with limited practice time,” Rice said. “We’re going to continue to play a strong non-conference schedule in the coming years. And it’s not enough just to play those games. We need to win a number of them. We’ve been able to do that.”
• After playing nine minutes in his debut Monday night against Louisiana-Monroe, sophomore Marquette transfer Reggie Smith didn’t get into Friday’s game until the final minute. It’s a matter of Rice wanting to ease the explosive 6-foot guard into the rotation while he works off some rust from his one-year layoff.
“This would have been a hard game to play Reggie, just because it’s a high-level game and he’s just getting going, but we haven’t lost any confidence in him at all,” Rice said.
With three games against lesser competition on the horizon, Smith could get more run as early as Wednesday.
• Numbers of Note … Chace Stanback scored 15 points, including three 3-pointers … Mike Moser finished with 14 points and eight rebounds … Oscar Bellfield ended the night with 11 points and 11 assists across from only two turnovers … After missing Monday’s game with turf toe, Quintrell Thomas’s recent surge continued Friday with eight points and six rebounds in 15 minutes … UNLV had 22 assists and only 13 turnovers … UNLV out-rebounded Cal 46-37.
• UNLV announced during Friday’s first half that its Dec. 31 game at Hawaii, which will tip-off at 5 p.m. locally, will be shown on Channel 8 here in Las Vegas.