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December 19, 2014

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Rebels crash into a harsh reality

Ron Kantowski says Kansas was just too good for UNLV to have the fairy-tale ending for its season the team deserves

Beyond the Sun

Because Clark Kellogg and Jay Bilas are back in the studio making bad predictions, we’ll let somebody who knows just as much about college basketball — the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce — summarize UNLV’s second-round NCAA Tournament game against Kansas on Saturday at the Qwest Center:

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull on the mask of the ol’ Lone Ranger. And you don’t mess around with the Kansas Jayhawks.

Even if you do have a custom-made two-piece pool cue, which the Rebels don’t.

You don’t climb Everest with a swizzle stick, you don’t win the Indy 500 driving a Volkswagen, you don’t play Mozart on a kazoo, you don’t paint Whistler’s Mother with a color by numbers set.

Anyway, you get the idea. Maybe last year, when the Rebels shot, rebounded and blocked the basketball better, they could have given mighty Kansas a game at another one of its homes away from home. Not this year. It was too much to ask.

No matter how many times UNLV coach Lon Kruger measured the baskets to show his players they were 10 feet off the ground just like back home at the Thomas & Mack Center, no matter how many times they ran The Picket Fence, there was always going to be a 6-foot-10 inch giant with “KANSAS” stenciled on his chest protecting the garden gate.

In real life, sometimes the Hoosiers lose.

For 25 minutes, it was a game. For 15 minutes, it wasn’t. Kansas won, 75-56, and that was probably as good as the Rebels were going to do.

“Again, I couldn’t be more proud of what this group has done,” said Lon Kruger who should take a bow himself after guiding a team that returned just one starter from last year’s Sweet 16 party crashers to a 27-8 record. “They hung in there today for a while against a really good Kansas club.”

Kansas was bigger, faster, stronger. Better. No matter how hard you play, no matter how well you draw the X’s and O’s, it’s hard to overcome the inherent disadvantages the Rebels were facing on Saturday.

The Rebels made 12 baskets the entire game. Part of that was because the Jayhawks (33-3) sent them to the free-throw line 34 times. The other part was that the Rebels got few good looks at the basket. More often than not, they were running their offense from Council Bluffs, on the Iowa side of the Missouri River. Or shooting from there.

UNLV made just 27 percent of its field-goal attempts. It was the Rebels’ worst shooting night since they made 25 percent against Louisville the night before Thanksgiving. It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals were much like the Jayhawks. Bigger, faster, stronger. Better.

With all due respect to the Western Kentuckys and the Sienas of the college basketball world, that’ll get you beat most every time. Drake was pretty good. So was Vanderbilt. But they ain’t Kansas.

The Jayhawks are so good that when the Rebels took away their ‘A’ game, they switched to Plan B or C or D without missing a beat. Or many shots. Kansas hit 58 percent of its field-goal attempts. Unlike the Rebels, the Jayhawks got a lot of good looks.

UNLV’s biggest fear going in was that it wouldn’t be able to stop Kansas from lobbing the ball inside. None of the Jayhawks’ big men even hit double figures. But all of their guards did. Mario Chalmers scored 17 points. Russell Robinson scored 13. Brandon Rush scored 12. Sherron Collins scored 10.

All with the exception of Rush — who mostly shot from outside and barely disturbed the net with his pretty high-arching jump shots — drove around the Rebels as if they were mired in corn husks. And the Rebels are pretty quick themselves.

“I think, from a coach’s perspective, it was a great game for us, because we didn’t exactly execute the game plan,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “We didn’t get the ball inside with as many touches early and those sorts of things. But the way we got it was put it in the guards’ hands and driving he ball, which turned out to be the biggest difference in the game. And we really defended.

“Our first shot defense was really great when we didn’t foul them, which was every other possession.”

There were too many times when the Rebels were still standing in the NCAA logo in the middle of the court with the shot clock winding down. But having your season end there, against a great team like Kansas, is better than having it end in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, which is where a lot of Rebels fans thought back in November that this rebuilding season would end.

“This group, maybe when you look back at it ... maybe established that ‘program’ feeling,” Kruger said about what its legacy would be. “This group maintained and really solidified what we’re after.”

But also say this about a season during which Kruger once again proved that when it comes to doing so much with so little, he’s the new Angus MacGyver.

It was fun while it lasted.

And it lasted longer than anybody thought it had a right to.

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