Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 | 2 a.m.
CHICAGO — The most valuable UNLV player on Saturday may have been one who wasn’t at the game.
Sophomore transfer guard Reggie Smith expected his Rebels debut to be in his hometown of Chicago against an Illinois squad built around several of his friends. It didn’t work out that way, though, as Smith’s grades weren’t posted in time.
Even if they were posted, UNLV still would have needed to get special permission from the NCAA because finals weren’t technically over until Saturday, and a player isn’t eligible until the day after finals.
Point being, a nice homecoming story didn’t happen, leaving Smith disappointed.
And his teammates motivated.
In the days before the game, when it started to look unlikely that Smith would make the trip, UNLV players and fans voiced their support. On Thursday night, #legReggieplay was trending on Twitter in Las Vegas. Then leading up to the game, teammates tweeted encouragement to Smith.
“Our guys actually before the game dedicated this game to Reggie,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
After the victory, junior guard Justin Hawkins said the players would all be talking to Reggie on the phone during the bus trip to the airport.
Smith will make his debut at home Monday night at 7 against Louisiana-Monroe.
Moser at full strength
At practice this week, Moser said the sprain in his right wrist was no longer an issue.
On Saturday, he proved it.
Moser led the team with 17 points and 11 rebounds, recapturing the style of play that helped UNLV pick up key victories earlier this season. He originally took off the tape on his wrist at halftime of Wednesday’s game against UTEP, and after Saturday’s victory, Moser said that was important in order to mentally get over the injury.
It seemed like a distant memory at the United Center, as a jovial Moser danced into the locker room and then answered a question about his rebounding with the utmost confidence.
“Rebounding, that’s a given,” Moser said. “I feel like every night there’s just no way to stop that.”
One of the Rebels’ biggest problems in their two losses this season was a lack of energy and effort at the beginning of the games.
That certainly wasn’t the case against Illinois.
“It helped our confidence to be in the game at the first media timeout and then the second timeout,” Rice said.
That’s not to say it was an entirely pretty game. The Rebels committed 18 turnovers and left a few shots open that they were lucky the Illini missed.
Still, Rice said, the errors on Saturday were coming from the right place.
“There’s no doubt we all made mistakes today, but last week (against Wisconsin) we made mistakes and we didn’t do it playing hard,” Rice said. “Today we played a 40-minute game in terms of our effort and our energy.”