In hindsight, UNLV couldn't have asked for a better opponent to face three days before Southern Cal comes to town.
The Rebels and Trojans will meet Friday at the Orleans Arena as part of the Las Vegas Invitational, and UNLV prepared for USC's patient, half-court-oriented, rugged style of play be defeating Cal Poly at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday night, 75-52.
The Mustangs may not possess the depth, athleticism or talent that the Trojans will showcase this weekend, but the two share a similar style of play, and UNLV showed that it may have the right recipe to counter it.
The key ingredient? Defense.
"We played great defense throughout the course of the game," Rebels coach Dave Rice said. "Our defense is something we can always call on."
In the first half, Cal Poly (2-2) did what many expected coming in, as the Mustangs milked the shot clock and tried to slow the Rebels (5-0) down to their preferred pace. While they worked the clock, UNLV defended consistently throughout, and as the shot clock dwindled, quality shots were tough to come by for the visitors.
Meanwhile, UNLV's offense, which had succeeded in its attempts to be fast-paced and fluid in the Rebels' last two outings, was slowed down some. Open shots didn't fall early, and UNLV shot just 35.7 percent from the floor before the break, where they led 29-22.
"The first half, we were kind of antsy on defense," junior guard Anthony Marshall said. "They were running a lot of clock, and we were kind of impatient. We went into halftime and started talking about the things we wanted to do — Be patent on defense. And it just so happened that the second half, we were patient, able to get into passing lanes and get long rebounds."
And from there, UNLV turned the tables on Cal Poly.
Led by a signature defensive performance off of the bench from junior guard Justin Hawkins in the second half, the Rebels got off of their heels and began wearing the Mustangs down in the back-court with heavy pressure. That led to transition opportunities. And that led to the overwhelmed Cal Poly squad getting worn down physically, allowing UNLV to pull away late.
Also, UNLV matched Cal Poly in terms of physicality.
Much like Morgan State attempted to do on Sunday night at the Mack, Cal Poly tried to make its presence felt early on by putting a few shots onto the Rebels' bodies, letting them know that that was one way they planned on trying to bridge the gap.
One blow that woke UNLV up early came six minutes into the game, when Marshall got slashed from behind in transition while going up for an easy bucket. Marshall fell to the floor and, in a huff, popped right back up and delivered a cold stare to the Mustangs' Chris Eversley, who was charged with a flagrant foul.
Marshall got back by hitting the two free throws, then on the ensuing possession, feeding Kendall Wallace for a rhythm three on the right wing. That small spurt gave UNLV an upper hand the rest of the way on the scoreboard.
"With that play, we knew we had to match their intensity and how physical they were," Marshall said. "They threw the first punch, and we just happened to counter."
Cal Poly used that same style to beat USC on Saturday night in Los Angeles, 42-36. Oddly enough, the Trojans will try to do the same to UNLV come Friday.
That grind-it-out type of game has been USC's calling card since Kevin O'Neill took over the program to start the 2009-10 season. That year, it worked against UNLV in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic on Christmas Day 2009. After soundly whipping SMU and Hawaii in the first two rounds, UNLV was slowed to a halt by a disciplined, patient, tough USC squad in a 67-56 loss that was one of the program's uglier offensive showings in recent years.
The Trojans are off to a so-so start this season, but several UNLV players who were on that team two years ago haven't forgotten the meeting.
"We weren't really prepared coming into the game for how patient (the Mustangs) were on offense — Once you get on the court, it's a different story," Marshall said. "USC sort of did the same thing last time."
Numbers and Notes
• Maybe UNLV's most important offensive stat was its 25-of-31 (80.6 percent) showing from the free throw line. The Rebels shot just 59.1 percent from the stripe in their first four games.
• Reigning Mountain West Player of the Week Mike Moser had an 'off' night, but still wound up with 14 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. Cal Poly worked hard to take away the mid-range jumper that he used to pick apart Morgan State on Sunday.
• Marshall had 13 points and seven assists, while Oscar Bellfield had 12 points and three assists. Rice commended afterwards how synchronized they've been in running UNLV's offense together through five games.
• Brice Massamba had 10 points and nine rebounds, tying his career high for boards.
• Carlos Lopez, who has been sensational down low for UNLV off of the bench since returning from a right ankle sprain sooner than expected, played only seven minutes. Rice said that Lopez's ankle is still only at about 75 percent, and the way Massamba and Quintrell Thomas played gave the staff a chance to get Lopez some extra rest leading into this weekend. Lopez also stayed on the floor after the game and worked out with Karam Mashour.