Rebels break in Mendenhall Center with gritty preparation for Saturday’s crucial clash with New Mexico

UNLV has a chance to not only force a tie atop Mountain West standings, but also prove it can be a force on the road.

So much for breaking in the Mendenhall Center with ease.

In the first practice held in their brand new $11.7 million practice facility, the UNLV men’s basketball team went harder than it had in almost any other session so far this season.

It was understandable, as Thursday afternoon was the team’s first team back on the floor since Tuesday night’s embarrassing 102-97 overtime loss at TCU.

In between was not only a lengthy trip back from Fort Worth, but also a pretty humbling film session.

“It was real disgusting, lazy,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “We just had the wrong attitude once we got a big lead. I don’t know, we’re just trying to put it past us.

“I guess we thought we were better than we were for a little bit, and thought we didn’t have to play anymore. At least that’s the attitude you get when you watch that film. Me included. I’ve got to step it up, be better.”

Moser was one of several Rebels who finished Tuesday’s game with a decent-looking stat line, posting 22 points and eight rebounds, but numbers hardly told the story for anyone against TCU.

The 11th-ranked Rebels (22-5 overall, 6-3 Mountain West) led the Horned Frogs by 18 with just over 13 minutes left to play, but an air of complacency set over the team at that point. UNLV got dominated down the stretch on the glass, while its defense left plenty to be desired and TCU stormed back.

“We didn’t have our killer instinct,” junior guard Justin Hawkins said. “We didn’t put away a team that was really excited to play us. Up 18 in the second half, we should have easily won that game by 30 or 40 points, but we got lackadaisical. Got complacent, didn’t play defense like we should have, didn’t rebound like we should have, didn’t execute our offense. That’s what happens.”

Added Moser: “I think we kind of addressed what we needed to address as a team. (Thursday’s practice) was about 50 percent defense, 40 percent rebounding, the rest was just running. Kind of everything we needed to get back right.”

Whether it all translates will be known Saturday morning, when the Rebels travel to Albuquerque for their toughest remaining game on the regular season slate against current conference leader New Mexico (21-4, 7-2). The two will tip-off at 10 a.m. in what will be the second Mountain West league game every shown on network TV, with CBS carrying the action.

The Lobos, who were the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, took sole possession of first place on Wednesday night with an impressive 77-67 victory on the road at San Diego State.

Currently, UNLV and SDSU are tied behind New Mexico, and the Rebels can again force a tie atop the standings by landing their third straight win in The Pit. If the Rebels could do so with four games left, it essentially puts them back in the driver’s seat for not only at least a piece of a league title, but also the coveted top seed in next month’s Mountain West tournament. A UNLV win over New Mexico would give it the tiebreaker over both the Lobos and the Aztecs based on head-to-head records.

But getting to that point is the tough part.

Not only is New Mexico currently the hottest team in the league, but Steve Alford’s club might be playing better basketball than anyone on the West Coast right now.

Since falling in Las Vegas in their first meeting with the Rebels back on Jan. 21, 80-63, the Lobos have won six straight. They’ve become a better defensive team, allowing only 50.3 points per game in that run.

The other driving force has been the emergence of sophomore guard Kendall Williams, who was expected at the start of the season to pick up where he left off as a freshman not only in terms of his production, but also in filling the leadership role left vacant by departing senior point guard Dairese Gary.

During the six-game run, Williams is shooting 64.6 percent from the floor, 52.9 percent from long range and is averaging 2.6 assists for every turnover he commits. He was as good as ever on Wednesday with 21 points off of 5-of-6 3-point shooting in San Diego.

As a team, New Mexico was 10-of-19 from deep on Wednesday, and that will be one key area of focus for the Rebels on the defensive end come Saturday.

Tuesday’s loss was one of UNLV’s most porous defensive efforts this season, and the Rebels have seemed to gradually decline some over the course of the year on that end of the floor. Given the emphasis on playing at a faster pace — and doing so with significant success — some of the focus has waned on defense.

First-year coach Dave Rice knows that trend has to reverse for UNLV to again look dominant.

“I think one of the dangers for us is we have become very good offensively, and sometimes the mistake we can make is that we score so easily at times, we share the ball, we’ve got good shooters, and we think we can just go into games and outscore people,” he said. “Sometimes offense comes so easy that we forget about the defensive end.”

Also, UNLV need to simply show that it can put its foot down on the road, as playing away from home in the Mountain West has been far from easy this season.

Away from the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV is now just 2-3 in conference play, needing overtime to come away with those two wins at Air Force and Boise State.

If the Rebels want any kind of real shot at reaching their preseason goal of winning at least a piece of a regular season Mountain West title, turning the road tides in one of the nation’s toughest road environments is a must.

They’re capable of doing so, but now simply have to prove it.

“It’s a chance for us to see if we’re really mentally tough on the road,” Hawkins said. “We haven’t really played well on the road, and after the TCU loss and the Wyoming loss on the road, back-to-back, we’re either going to come prepared for the game and play hard all 40 minutes, or we’ll be in for a long, rough night.”