Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer talk about the UNLV basketball team's last-second victory against San Diego State. A sold-out crowd created a great atmosphere in one of the Rebels' most significant wins of the season.
- Jerry Tarkanian: Mike Moser continues to impress, make a difference
- UNLV makes the key plays down the stretch to hold off San Diego State 65-63
- Instant Analysis: In the wake of an exciting finish, debating whether UNLV should continue series with San Diego State
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 65, San Diego State 63
- Blog: Justin Hawkins’ steal seals UNLV’s thrilling 65-63 victory against San Diego State
- Live color from the scene at Thomas & Mack Center: We have a wire job! Rebels win, and Louie Armstrong sings!
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
You could see the Rebels’ collective weight lifting off of Dave Rice’s shoulders as he victoriously threw his arms into the air Saturday afternoon.
UNLV wanted this one. Badly.
“The bottom line is our guys certainly were tired of having to answer questions of ‘Why have you lost six in a row?’ ” Rice said after UNLV’s 65-63 victory against San Diego State.
In front of a sold-out and jamming Thomas & Mack Center, No. 14 UNLV defeated No. 13 San Diego State for just the second time in the last 11 meetings and first in the last seven.
Whatever the Rebels hope to accomplish this season — and the goals will only get higher from here — it had to start with this victory.
“We never quit playing,” Rice said. “And that’s a sign of a team that’s got a chance to be very good.”
UNLV (22-4, 6-2) is now tied with San Diego State (20-4, 6-2) for first place in the Mountain West. With six games to go before the Rebels host the conference tournament, they hold their own title chances.
To get there, and thus to give themselves the best possible chance for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels need to learn from Saturday’s near-collapse, as well as the first half of the conference season.
It starts with navigating the road.
“That’s been our downfall this whole year,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said.
UNLV still has to play at New Mexico and at Colorado State, two games the Aztecs have already won.
The road starts with TCU on Tuesday, and if the Rebels have learned from their mistakes, as they said they have, they will play with a sense of urgency.
“We’re at the point now where we understand that every time we go on the road it’s a huge game for the other team, so those excuses are over,” Rice said.
With two road conference losses by a total of four points, UNLV could easily be 8-0 right now. Conversely, if not for two last-second defensive stops on the road in one week it could also be 4-4.
“The team we want to be, that’s what we want to do is put teams away,” Moser said. “We don’t want to have to have our best defender have to get a game-winning steal. We don’t want to be in that position.”
These late-game pressure situations can be good experience for a team, particularly one that lacks postseason success. UNLV will be battle-tested. However, too many of them is not a good sign. It may suggest that there’s no killer instinct, no inherent ability to step on a team’s throat.
That isn’t really UNLV’s problem, though. Leading by 12 with just less than 12 minutes to play on Saturday, the Rebels kept firing.
“We’re not really a team that gives up and holds the ball, we’re still trying to score,” Moser said.
Trouble is, they kept missing.
During the final 11 minutes, UNLV shot 3-for-15 from the field, including 0-for-6 behind the three-point line. That’s the same type of stretch that has led to their losses and narrow victories on the road.
Rice said he didn’t have any problem with the shots UNLV took down the stretch. They were open looks within the offense.
That’s true, but it’s also hard to ignore that Brice Massamba, who scored 10 points in the first four minutes of the second half, didn’t take a shot for the rest of the game.
A knock on the Rebels has been that they’re too quick to fire up jumpers, especially in close games. Of course, their fast-paced, free-flowing attack has also been the source of most of their praise (see: Sword, Double-Edged).
During that final stretch on Saturday, the Rebels worked the ball inside but the defense gave them outside shots, so they took them.
Rice isn’t going to change his philosophy going forward. The Rebels got where they are, and will go as far as they can, by creating turnovers, pushing the tempo and never being afraid to take an open shot, no matter the score.
That means in a possible rematch with San Diego State in the conference tournament, the Rebels will keep firing with the belief that each shot is going in. And despite their massive struggles against the Aztecs, the Rebels said they want that game.
“We want to go through the best to be Mountain West champions,” junior guard Justin Hawkins said.
If that matchup ends up happening, the Rebels now know they can win. The weight is lifted.
Going forward, that may be the most important thing.