Rebels basketball:

Program builder’: An oral history of the game that put UNLV back on the map

Taking down No. 1 on national TV with an exciting style of play is still paying dividends for Rebels coach Dave Rice

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Sam Morris

UNLV forward Mike Moser is mobbed by fans after the Rebels beat North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game, Nov. 26, 2011, at the Orleans Arena. The Rebels upset the top-ranked Tar Heels 90-80.

UNLV scores big win against North Carolina

UNLV forward Carlos Lopez celebrates the Rebels' upset of UNC with a court full of fans at the Las Vegas Invitational championship game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, at the Orleans Arena. UNLV beat the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels 90-80. Launch slideshow »

The best way to create a giant snowball is to make a small one and then set it off down a hill, letting your original creation do much of the work for you.

People in Las Vegas may not have a lot of experience with snowballs, but those who follow the UNLV basketball program are familiar with the idea in the aftermath of a program-building victory last year. In his second season coaching his alma mater, UNLV coach Dave Rice has his team at 11-1. Heading into their biggest nonconference game of the year, the 20th-ranked Rebels will be in the national polls when they play at North Carolina (9-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2. North Carolina will not be ranked.

Considering the Rebels’ struggles on the road, it would be unfair to say they’re expected to win, but UNLV will be only a small underdog when the teams tip off. How the Rebels got to this point has a lot to do with what happened the last time these teams met, on Nov. 26, 2011. Playing at the Orleans Arena in front of a national audience on ESPN2, UNLV outran UNC for a 90-80 victory. That was the small snowball, and despite the team's struggles at the end of last season, the snowball hasn’t stopped rolling down the hill.

As the Rebels prepare for the rematch, members of the team and UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood look back at the game that announced the return of the Rebels. Titles reflect players’ class at the time of the game, and comments have been edited for content and clarity.

ANTHONY MARSHALL, junior guard

Anytime you’ve got a marquee opponent like North Carolina in your tournament, that’s who you want to match up with. To be the best, you want to beat the best.

JUSTIN HAWKINS, junior guard

Who doesn’t want to play against North Carolina? They’ve got the history and the tradition there. We want to get back to where we once were, and we felt like they have everything going on now. That was Now vs. the Past, and that game put us back on the national map.

JIM LIVENGOOD, UNLV athletic director

I was hoping that we could compete. When you play North Carolina, you need to be tough on the boards, you need to shoot the ball well and you need to have everybody in it. That was a great example of everybody playing well and committing.

DAVE RICE, UNLV coach

We had a shoot-around in the Cox practice gym, and I remember how focused our guys were. I think they just understood the opportunity that they had.

MARSHALL

You could sense it in the air in the locker room and in the warm-ups. Guys weren’t really laughing and smiling like we usually do. There was just a focus that I can’t really explain. You just have to see it.

The only threat to that focus was one UNLV fan, an unofficial mascot we’ll call Tupac T-Shirt Guy, who still sticks out to the Rebels more than a year later.

QUINTRELL THOMAS, junior forward

There was some guy saying the craziest stuff. It was entertaining, but you had to try to keep your composure. There weren’t too many people laughing, but you laughed on the inside.

MIKE MOSER, sophomore forward

That was definitely the highlight of the whole weekend for me. That was the best. We were warming up; they were warming up. They had a whole entourage, like 400-500 people on the baseline taking pictures with iPhone cameras and all that. Then we just had that one guy in a Tupac shirt getting us going. ‘It’s Maryland Parkway. They don’t know us. We wear red. These are our streets.’ I don’t know if we were supposed to take that seriously, but we really did. We took that to heart. It was literally like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. This is ours. Everything here, this is our stuff.’ We took that funny-looking dude seriously. He had us hyped the whole game.

UNLV took a 17-9 lead. After trailing by four at halftime, the Rebels moved ahead for good with 18:12 left in the second half. Senior Chace Stanback scored a game-high 28 points, and Moser finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds.

HAWKINS

The starters kicked it off, and us bench players came in and kept it going. Coach did a great job managing minutes ... and finding mismatches.

LIVENGOOD

I don’t know if I was surprised. I was really, really pleased. Against a team like North Carolina, you don’t expect to make every shot because they’re going to be in your face. I thought the plan and the control on the boards were impressive. The game was under control, that’s what was great.

MARSHALL

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV guard Anthony Marshall dunks on the University of North Carolina during the Las Vegas Invitational championship game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 at the Orleans Arena. The Rebels upset the number one ranked Tar Heels 90-80.

Chace came out shooting the ball real hot, and my dunk (right) just added to that and got the fans behind us. That gave us some momentum to keep it going.

RICE

We were able to play how we wanted to play.

HAWKINS

We felt like North Carolina wasn’t really concerned about us and was looking down the line. We knew that we were better than them all around; we just had to play a full 40 minutes.

MOSER

That was probably the best 40 minutes of basketball that we played all year. Every possession was important. We were so into it, so focused, so alert. That’s how basketball should be played. Sometimes out here you’ll play a bad team and you’ll take a couple of possessions off, just being talented and not aware, but that game we were locked in and so tight. We could have beaten anybody that day. Anybody.

People around the country started taking notice, including current starter Katin Reinhardt, who said he was tracking the score on the bus home from a tournament. Reinhardt was already committed to the Rebels, though. The game also caught the eye of then-Pitt forward Khem Birch, whose eventual commitment to UNLV was huge in later getting fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett to join the program. That then led to getting freshman Savon Goodman and UConn transfer Roscoe Smith later in the summer.

LIVENGOOD

The biggest thing there was getting a chance, even though it’s in Las Vegas, to play on a national stage. Everybody was watching this game.

KHEM BIRCH, Pittsburgh freshman

I was in my dorm and flipping through channels. I was just amazed at how fast and how free the system was. North Carolina was losing at the time, in the second half, and I was shocked.

MARSHALL

You can see our recruiting class now and the things that are coming in the future. That game propelled us into the national spotlight.

RICE

Everybody watched it; recruits, other coaches, so it was a big deal. We played well, and we scored 90 points in the game and it was a terrific win for our program. It was a big program builder.

One highlight that made the rounds nationally that night and the next day saw the return of Tupac T-Shirt Guy, who was hugging Moser and then-sophomore Karam Mashour on the bench in the final seconds.

Click to enlarge photo

"Tupac T-Shirt Guy," a fan at the game who still sticks out to the Rebels more than a year later, hugs Karam Mashour, left, and Mike Moser on the bench in the waning minutes of the Rebels upset of No.1 ranked North Carolina at the Orleans Arena.

MOSER

I remember security pulled him away. I was like "No, let him back. We’re about to storm the court." That was a fun game, man.

LIVENGOOD

I was tempted, but I did not charge the court.

THOMAS

After that game, I realized I shouldn’t have been on the court. It was good for the fans, though.

RICE

It was a significant win for our program for what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to be, but I don’t know if we had lost a close game what it would have done. I just think the style of play was a big deal. When I got the job, I talked about the importance of winning. I knew that was No. 1, but style was No. 1-A, to be able to push the ball up and down the floor and play fast. That was my vision for the program, and it was exciting to be able to play that way on that particular night against a terrific team.

MARSHALL

That’s when people started taking notice of us.

LIVENGOOD

I really was happy for Las Vegas and for UNLV. All of a sudden when you play No. 1 and you beat No. 1, some amazing things happen. I’ve been a part of that before, both in football and basketball, at other schools. It changes how people look at you. It just does. We still have a lot of work to do, but in some ways it made a statement that UNLV basketball is back.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. I think the Rebels will win tomorrow. Enough of the struggles on the road. That was last years team.

  2. Not sure what to think about this game other than it will be really good for UNLV. The Rebs matching up against a sure NCAA tourney team, at their gym, with a roudy crowd will serve them well down the road. Should learn alot more about themselves and it will be good to see Khem and AB match up against some other future pros on the front line. Excited to see how our team handles all the distraction and the atmosphere of playing UNC in Chapel Hill. Runnin' Rebels!

  3. "Considering the Rebels' struggles on the road, it would be unfair to say they're expected to win, but UNLV will be only a small underdog when the teams tip off. "..........

    We need a big win on the road to become a legit program. Rebels, let's do this!

  4. This is a great article. I was there at the orleans and it gives me chills just to think about that game. It was so much fun to storm the court and it was a huge victory. That game made it possible for us to become an elite team and now a win at Chapel Hill will just confirm that. We need this win!

  5. I agree: We can and should win this game and it will be a big boost for the program and well deserved for Coach Rice and the players and it's great to see us on national TV as a stepping stone to greater goals. All good things, but...

    Seems like every year for the past few (not just UNC, but remember that Louisville game, etc.) we win a big nonconference game against a higher-ranked opponent and then ... conference play comes along and we lose to Colorado State or something. Sometimes to CSU twice.

    If we're being honest, looking at the past few years, big wins against nonconference opponents often haven't meant a lot in March. Wins against UNC and Hawaii will get us good tournament seeds. Wins against UNC and losses to UNR won't.

    Don't get me wrong- The Tar Heels are going down! - but winning now isn't necessarily an indication of anything. Coach Rice needs to make sure the players know that the mid-February Wyoming and Boise State games need to be won as well.

  6. When we beat UNC last year I was so excited I couldn't sleep that night. I sat outside and soaked in the hot tub until 3:00am talking about the game.