Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 | 8:44 p.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer discuss the UNLV basketball team's 85-68 victory against Cal. The Rebels built a 20-point lead by halftime in improving to 13-2 on the season.
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The UNLV basketball team walked out onto Tarkanian Court, looked each other in the eyes and knew that they would defeat California.
This was about five hours before tipoff.
“You could sense the focus on everybody’s faces when shoot around came around,” said senior Chace Stanback. “Nobody looked sleepy, everybody was locked in to what we wanted to do.”
In a Christmas Eve eve matinee against California (10-3), the 21st-ranked Rebels (13-2) stormed out of the gates and crushed the Bears 85-68. Stanback scored the game’s first points and finished with 15, but everyone got involved. Junior guard Anthony Marshall piled up a game-high 22 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
His highlight was leaping at least a medium-sized building to finish an alley-oop thrown up by senior guard Oscar Bellfield, who finished with 11 assists and 11 points.
Some of UNLV’s toughest games — at Wichita State, at Wisconsin and Illinois in Chicago — were daytime starts. It’s fair to say they’ve figured out their morning routine.
“There’s always a discussion as to when we play a 2 p.m. game, should we let our guys sleep or should we get them up,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It was important for us to come in and have a shoot around. Sometimes college guys, sometimes even college coaches, aren’t that awake early in the morning. But our guys were focused, they were ready to go.”
California scrapped the recent conventional wisdom for UNLV opponents — slow down — and started the game with a four-guard lineup that was ready to run. It turned out to be one of those good surprises for the Rebels.
“We really didn’t prepare for that,” Marshall said, “but we felt that it would be easier for us.”
Marshall said he saw the Bears defense keying on the Rebels outside shooters, so instead of kicking the ball out, he attacked the lane and finished at the rim or pulled up for mid-range jumpers. He also had a couple of 3-pointers, as did sophomore Mike Moser, who hit both of his with a hand in his face.
And at the other end of almost all of those shots was Bellfield.
“I love having him on the floor,” Rice said of Bellfield, “he’s just so important to what we do.”
Bellfield finished the first half with nine assists and no turnovers in 17 minutes.
UNLV entered the game ranked 11th in the nation in assists per game, and that will only improve after Friday’s game. It’s not by mistake, either.
“The agenda that we try to play with as a group is whoever is open gets the ball,” Rice said. “We let the defense dictate where the ball goes.”
Marshall is a perfect example. In the last two games, he had the same number of assists (nine) as points. But against Cal, it was his turn to score.
“We have great team chemistry … Sometimes we pass up good shots just trying to pass,” Marshall said. “We just love sharing the ball with one another.”
UNLV’s biggest lead of the game was 27 with just less than nine minutes remaining. In the subsequent possessions, Cal whittled away at the lead and got as close as 13 before it was all over.
Rice, of course, didn’t let his team slide on those possessions, but 35 “sensational” minutes made it hard to nitpick too much.
The defense gave up two 3-pointers in the opening minutes, and then tightened the clamps on their closeouts and didn’t allow any for the rest of the half. For the game, the Rebels outrebounded the Bears 46-37, and they hit nine 3-pointers.
The first half showcased the best UNLV has to offer.
Scoring from the perimeter and in the paint. Hounding defense. Quick outlet passes. All of that, executed with energy, is hard to stop.
It’s even more difficult when the decision-maker, Marshall, is on top of his game.
Marshall dipped into a bit of an offensive swoon starting with the loss at Wichita State. He scored only two points against Wisconsin.
But two weeks ago, Marshall found his rhythm again. Cal can attest to that.
“The end of the UTEP game was a huge step for Anthony in terms of trusting himself,” Rice said. “… He doesn’t have to be making shots to help our team, but when he does, as he did today, it’s pretty special.”
It’s also pretty unstoppable. Especially when the Rebels’ focus starts from the time they get out of bed.