Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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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.
- UNLV’s Smith unlikely to play at Illinois (Dec. 15, 2011)
- Lopez's small efforts add up for UNLV (12-15-2011)
- Anthony Marshall closes out UNLV’s narrow victory (12-15-2011)
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 65, UTEP 54 (12-14-2011)
- Instant Analysis: Rebels should gain confidence by winning when not at their best (12-14-2011)
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Up-and-down UNLV’s roster, last year’s season-ending 73-62 loss to Illinois in the NCAA Tournament isn’t far from the Rebels’ minds.
“It was very upsetting and very embarrassing to get on that stage and go out like that,” Marshall said.
On Saturday, UNLV gets a chance to exact some measure of revenge when it plays No. 19 Illinois at 2 p.m. PST in Chicago at the United Center.
That game, which was played in Tulsa, Okla., had a familiar script for the Rebels of late. UNLV wasn’t prepared to play at the beginning of the game and found itself down 46-24 at halftime. Things went better in the second half, but the deficit was too great to overcome.
Lopez said he’s watched the game a few times since last March, and his assessment was the same one UNLV has given itself after two losses this season.
“Lack of energy, lack of effort,” Lopez said. “It seemed like the team was not playing together.”
Those similarities aside, these teams are a lot different than last season.
The Illini lost their three leading scorers, who combined for 45 points against UNLV. They’ve made up for it with the emergence of Meyers Leonard and D.J. Richardson, who played at Findlay Prep his senior season at Findlay Prep, as well as the addition of Bradley transfer point guard Sam Maniscalco.
Lopez played one season at Findlay with Richardson, who’s leading the Illini with 13.7 points per game.
“Great team player,” Lopez said. “… He can do a little bit of everything.”
UNLV has faced a lot of talented guards this season. However, it has less experience against elite big men, and Leonard, a 7-foot-1 sophomore, certainly fits that bill.
“He demands a lot of attention,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
Leonard averages 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. He also shoots 64 percent from the floor, which ranks in the top 30 nationally.
Double-teams anytime Leonard touches the ball are likely, but that also leaves the Rebels’ defense vulnerable to kick outs to open guards who have proven they can shoot well.
“It’s such a balanced team,” Rice said. “You take away one guy and you’ve got to worry about another.”
The Rebels do have at least a couple of things working in their favor.
First is that Illinois likes to run. The Illini may try to slow the tempo since it’s been proven to frustrate the Rebels, but Marshall said that Illinois’ transition game was the biggest surprise in last year’s matchup. And that has him excited about the possibilities this weekend.
“It’s going to be 40 minutes of open gym a little bit,” Marshall said, “where you push the ball as fast as you can and make something happen.”
Secondly, the nation’s second-leading rebounder this season — Mike Moser — was just a spectator in that game.
“I saw so many areas of the game where I know I could have contributed,” Moser said.
He’ll get his chance on Saturday, and he’ll be doing it without a wrap on his right wrist.
Moser ditched the tape during halftime of Wednesday’s victory against UTEP. He has been dealing with a sprain in his shooting hand for two weeks, but on Thursday Moser said he felt that the injury was behind him.
That remains to be seen, but if he is healthy and can make jumpers it opens up the Rebels’ offense and adds a dimension that was missing in their other recent trips to the Midwest.
UNLV was expecting to get a reinforcement for this game, but as of Thursday night it appears that Marquette transfer guard Reggie Smith will not be eligible to play until Monday’s home game against Louisiana-Monroe.
That means that Marshall (31.3 minutes per game) and Oscar Bellfield (32.2 mpg) will likely log their usual court time. Marshall said it would be nice to have Smith, but they can handle it.
“We’ve been doing it the whole season so far, so why not?” Marshall said. “It’s a mental thing. If you think you’re tired, you’re tired.”
A victory on Saturday wouldn’t change what happened last season. Rice, who was an outside observer at the time, said the revenge factor may give the Rebels only slightly more motivation than any other road game against a top-25 team.
But the players have had this one on their minds. And with the recent struggles on road trips, this is an opportunity to exorcise a couple of demons.
“This is one of the games I’ve been looking forward to, and I know my teammates have (too),” Marshall said. “If we want to be the team that we want to be, we’ve got to go through teams like this.”