Throughout his basketball career, at just about every level, almost no one has disrespected Anthony Marshall's game like UTEP did early on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Each of the first few times the UNLV junior guard caught the ball on the perimeter, the Miner guarding him backed off, practically daring him to shoot.
For a while, that little wrinkle in UTEP's slow-it-down approach helped keep it a close game.
But, ultimately, Marshall got the last laugh in a 65-54 UNLV win. It was the Rebels' first home game since Nov. 22.
Marshall went just 1-for-6 from the floor in the first half and missed all four 3-point attempts that UTEP gave him, including one unsightly air-ball from the right corner. It was a half that mirrored the rest of what has been a frustrating start to the season for Marshall in terms of scoring.
"In the first half, a lot of the shots I felt I took weren't really in rhythm, my feet weren't set, hands weren't on the ball properly, elbow wasn't out — Just a lot of the little things that play into my shooting," he said. "My confidence got down a little bit, but those are shots I practice on and know I can make. My teammates just stuck with me and had confidence in me, they got me through the second half and we got a win."
The coaching staff told Marshall during halftime to keep shooting and not let the bad half derail his entire night.
And, in turn, down the home stretch, Marshall hit a pair of key 3-pointers, then an 18-foot jumper atop the key that helped finally give UNLV (10-2) the cushion it needed over a pesky UTEP (2-5) squad.
"I believe that if we didn't continue to instill that confidence in Anthony, he wouldn't have made those three big baskets down the stretch," coach Dave Rice said afterwards.
It was a much-needed offensive breakout for Marshall, who finished the night with 20 points, going 5-of-6 from the floor and 2-of-2 from deep after the halftime pep talks. Prior to Wednesday, his season-high was 13 points, and he was shooting just 37.5 percent from the floor — almost 10 percentage points lower than last season. While he's adapted to the role of point guard nicely in terms of being a facilitator while remaining a strong rebounder, his lack of consistent scoring punch had chewed at Marshall over the team's first 11 games.
It was a night where someone was going to have to step up eventually on offense, as the Rebels were somewhat surprised by UTEP's approach early on. The Miners — much like Cal Poly, USC and Wisconsin have done to UNLV with relative success already — extended possessions and were disciplined enough to wait until deep into the shot clock to make a move.
As a result, the Rebels were somewhat flustered and struggled to find a rhythm early on. They started the game 3-of-19 from the floor, and shot 31 percent as a team before taking a narrow 24-21 edge into the halftime locker room.
"We were able to count on our defense, and probably not an offensive film that we'll send to the Hall of Fame," Rice joked of the first half showing. "We're just going to have to learn to play these games, because it seems like teams are really concerned about our offensive transition, so we'll have to guard for longer possessions and do a better job."
As has been the case for much of the season so far, UNLV showed itself to be a solid second-half team, firing away at a 57.1 percent clip in the final 20 minutes.
One team that UNLV can count on not trying to slow them down will be its next opponent — Saturday against No. 19 Illinois at the United Center in Chicago.
The Illini (10-0) prefer an uptempo style similar to UNLV's. The Rebels experienced that first-hand last March in a 73-62 loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The game wasn't even as close as the final score may suggest.
That result hasn't escaped the memory of several Rebels who pegged the term "embarrassing" to describe that performance. They've had this date on their schedule circled since it was first released.
"It was very upsetting and very embarrassing to get on that stage and go out like that," Marshall recalled. "The first half, we really didn't do anything we wanted to, but I felt the second half, we battled and made an effort to come back. That's the positive thing you can take away from that game.
"Also, from our two losses to Wichita State and Wisconsin, we learned that we've got to come out and play right from the get-go. You can't feel your way through the first few minutes, because against good ball clubs like that, in a hostile environment like that, you'll find yourself down and it'll be very tough to come back."
FURTHER OBSERVATIONS MOVING FORWARD FROM WEDNESDAY …
— Justin Hawkins continues to be an excellent spark off of the bench for UNLV. Some fans are calling for him to be inserted into the starting lineup, but he simply fits the role he's in right now perfectly. On Wednesday, he had 12 points, five rebounds and four steals in 28 minutes, and also went 7-of-7 from the free throw line.
— Taking a look at the big men, it was a tough night for starter Brice Massamba, who had issues on both ends early on and ended up playing only 10 minutes. Quintrell Thomas played nine minutes — all in the first half — and looked a bit more comfortable on the offensive end. His biggest contribution, though, was three key blocked shots. Carlos Lopez had the best night of the bunch, playing 20 minutes and scoring 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
— Oscar Bellfield's tough offensive stretch extended to a fourth game, as he was just 2-of-6 from the floor in 32 minutes with six points. Expect him to bust out of it after this week once final exams are over, as he's had as busy of a schedule as any of his teammates, needing only a few more credit hours to be completed before he graduates. He's spread himself thin off of the floor in the last week or so as the semester draws to a close.
— As far as UNLV's backcourt depth getting a boost with the addition of Marquette transfer Reggie Smith after the fall semester ends, that might have to wait until Monday's game against Louisiana-Monroe. Ideally, Smith would love to make his debut on Saturday in his hometown against the Illini, whose roster includes several former AAU teammates of his. However, after the game, Rice, who earlier this week said it was a 50-50 chance of his grades being posted in time to make the trip, indicated that Smith's debut will probably come Monday instead of Saturday. However, he said nothing is for sure just yet. More information should be available on Thursday. The team departs for Chicago late Friday morning.