Part of what led to UNLV losing back-to-back games for the first time this season last week on trips to TCU and New Mexico was the Rebels losing sight of their defensive identity.
Consider it found.
By implementing a sweltering defensive attack that featured waves of sticky backcourt traps, 21st-ranked UNLV bounced back on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, dispatching of Mountain West cellar-dweller Boise State, 75-58.
“We felt like we’d lost a little bit of our swagger, and that happens when you lose games,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “The way we felt like we’d get our swagger back was to get playing how we need to play on the defensive end. So we trapped their ball screens, trapped their handoffs, just wanted to get out and go.”
Eight days removed from a punchless defensive showing in an overtime stunner at TCU, the Rebels held Boise State to 35.7 percent shooting, pressured them to chuck 30 3-point attempts and forced 14 turnovers.
Four days after suffering through arguably its worst offensive half of the season in the second stanza at New Mexico, UNLV again was able to push the pace, scoring 21 fast break points. They also were able to work for the shots they wanted, both inside and out, shot 49.1 percent from the floor and connected on 10 of 21 3-point tries.
“I thought we had a good team effort all-around tonight,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “Brice (Massamba) got us started early, we just tried to pound the ball inside. Once we got him going, that allowed Chace (Stanback) and some others to get shots going up.”
Massamba tallied a career-high 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, and he did indeed open things up for UNLV’s outside marksmen. Stanback and Justin Hawkins, in particular.
Stanback, who struggled mightily on the road yet again on Saturday, was in need of a bounce-back performance. He got several looks early, both in a spot-up role and by using nifty moves to create a bit of separation on his own with the ball. The end result was a game-high 19 points, including four made 3-pointers in 30 minutes of run.
When he took a rest, Hawkins kept it up, hitting four treys of his own.
Marshall added 11 points and 10 rebounds, giving him his second consecutive double-double.
UNLV’s shot selection in the first half was as disciplined as it’s been all season, and by hitting 16 of 26 attempts, the Rebels (23-6 overall, 7-4 Mountain West) took a 41-29 edge into the halftime break.
Having learned a lesson after blowing a double-digit second half lead in Fort Worth last week, they never let up on the defensive end.
“We wanted to be the dictators on offense and defense, so I think we did a good job of that,” Marshall said.
Not everything was perfect in the end.
The Rebels’ stout defense helped keep Boise State (13-13, 3-8) at bay during what turned into a pretty sloppy second half. That was partly due to the offensive execution on both ends, and partly due to the overwhelming amount of whistles blown by the refs in the game’s final 20 minutes. On top of that, each team struggled at the free throw line, finishing the game 11-of-22.
Also, Rice was unable to extend his bench quite as much as he’d originally planned to.
Hawkins and sophomore guard Reggie Smith both chipped in nicely, as UNLV went with smaller lineups for longer stretches of time than normal. However, up-and-down junior Quintrell Thomas and sophomore Carlos Lopez, who is still nursing a right ankle injury, only played a combined 11 minutes behind Massamba.
But the result was enough to give everyone a sense of accomplishment afterwards, especially considering the week that UNLV just endured.
In the bigger picture, the win kept the Rebels within a game of New Mexico in the Mountain West standings. The Lobos, who on Saturday took a stranglehold of first place, dropped a 71-63 decision at Colorado State on Tuesday night. San Diego State downed Wyoming in overtime on Wednesday, keeping the Aztecs tied with the Rebels. Both still have a glimmer of hope at getting at least a share of the league’s regular season title with three games left to play.
UNLV’s next test will be Saturday back at the Mack against Air Force (13-12, 3-8).
But getting a shot at a piece of the regular season crown is hardly the focus right now. Saturday will simply be another chance to build the overall product back up with the postseason looming.
“As far as that, we just have to worry about what we’re doing,” Marshall said. “We can’t worry about what’s going on in the league, because once you start doing that, you get away from the things that you want to do as a group.”