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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

Ray Brewer:

Instant Analysis: Rebels should gain confidence by winning when not at their best

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Sam Morris

UNLV forward Mike Moser talks with coach Stacy Augmon during a time out in their game against the University of Texas El Paso Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 65-54.

UNLV overcomes slow start to beat UTEP

University of Texas El Paso guard Michael Perez finds himself surrounded by UNLV players during the first half of their game Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

UNLV beats UTEP

KSNV coverage of the Runnin' Rebels taking on the University of Texas El Paso basketball team, Dec. 14, 2011.

The Rebel Room

Rebel Room postgame edition — Rebels struggle early, but down UTEP

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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer break down the UNLV basketball team's 65-54 victory against UTEP. The Rebels started slow and struggled with their shooting all night, but were too much for an inexperienced UTEP squad down the stretch.

Talk about an ugly start to the game for the UNLV basketball team.

Anthony Marshall caught nothing but air on a 3-point attempt, Mike Moser missed an uncontested dunk and Brice Massamba was twice blocked on the same possession.

That summarizes the opening 10 minutes Wednesday of the Rebels’ 65-54 win against UTEP, where they overcame another awful beginning to prevail in their first game back at the Thomas & Mack Center in 22 days.

After 10 minutes, they trailed 12-8. Yep, a team that has scored more than 80 points in seven of their 11 games, and prides itself in an uptempo style of play, was averaging less than one point per minute.

It was the same drill at Wichita State and Wisconsin the past two weekends. The Rebels lacked energy at the start of both games, fell into an early double-digit deficit and couldn’t respond.

Wisconsin limited UNLV to 51 points last Saturday by slowing the down the pace of the game. UTEP was able to keep the score close by doing the same thing, forcing UNLV out of its attacking style of play. You can surely bet the Rebels every team UNLV plays the rest of the way will employ a similar strategy.

To UNLV’s credit they were able to win against UTEP, a team they were favored by 18 points against and should have easily defeated. They game was supposed to give the Rebels a chance to build confidence after the sluggish effort at Wisconsin, and winning when they weren’t at their best certainly meets the criteria for gaining confidence.

Illinois, which last year knocked UNLV out of the NCAA Tournament, is the Rebels’ last chance to make a splash in non-league play. Laboring against UTEP definitely brings some of the Rebels’ weakness to light, especially rough starts to games. Scoring eight points in 12 minutes to open the game will usually result in a loss.

Regardless of the opponent, or manner in which the game was won, prevailing when you aren’t at your best says something about the Rebels. It’s still mid-December and there is a lot of basketball left. UNLV doesn’t need to light the scoreboard up every night to win.

Here are three other observations:

Field-goal percentage must improve: I’m willing to chalk the Rebels’ 39 percent shooting performance up to a bad day. After all, this was the first game in 22 days at the Mack because of the National Finals Rodeo, and the players were clearly out of rhythm in misfiring badly for most of the night. I’m not sure how much of the struggles can be attributed to the layoff, but it’s enough to issue a mulligan. In the first half, UNLV made just nine field goals. They had only 13 makes with eight minutes to play. Regardless of the venue, however, the Rebels will always struggle shooting the basketball when they are taken out of their transition style of play. The fast break leads to easy baskets. Easy baskets create momentum, which leads to open looks from the outside. It’s actually an easy formula. And, tonight, the game was mostly played at UTEP’s slow pace.

Mike Moser’s two big plays: The last UNLV game I covered, Mike Moser had a career night at UC Santa Barbara in scoring 36 points to create rumblings about him being the next Shawn Marion — leaving UNLV after one season for the NBA. While battling a hand injury the past two weeks has silenced that talk, he still is providing UNLV with clutch plays during crucial moments of the game. His dunk in transition with 6:25 remaining gave UNLV a five-point lead and was one of the lone times the Rebels excelled on the fast break. One minute later, he rebounded a missed free throw and converted a short jumper to continue helping the Rebels pull away. For me, a healthy Moser makes UNLV a favorite to win the Mountain West Conference, giving him a month to recover before league play starts Jan. 14.

What Reggie Smith can bring to the lineup: Reggie Smith, the 6-foot transfer guard from Marquette who will make his UNLV debut Saturday against Illinois, will instantly bring much-needed athleticism to the UNLV lineup. Trust me, Smith’s vertical jumping ability and quickness are going to be fun to watch, and will easily create opportunities for his teammates. While the sophomore will definitely bring some excitement to the rotation, he is far from a finished product. Remember, he’ll be rusty after sitting out last year, and only averaged 1.4 points, 1.6 assists and 1.5 rebounds in 9.9 minutes over eight games at Marquette. More importantly, minutes in the UNLV backcourt will be hard to find. Marshall and senior Oscar Bellfield are two of the Rebels’ most important players, and Justin Hawkins off the bench is the team’s best defender. Smith, at least early on, might be a spark off the bench.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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