Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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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When UNLV basketball players and coaches pull up their chairs for a holiday dinner this weekend, they will do so knowing they earned their place at the table.
“It’s a good way to close out the pre-Christmas schedule for us,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We challenged our guys to come back when we go to practice on Monday night and continue to get better.”
Based on the first half against the Bears, that will be quite the challenge.
The 21st-ranked Rebels (13-2) played nearly perfect in the first 20 minutes, shooting 54 percent from the floor, including 45 percent behind the three-point line, dishing out 14 assists and forcing eight turnovers. The result was a 20-point lead that only grew until the waning minutes.
After the game, several players rushed to the airport to catch flights to their homes across the country. When he was made aware that this is UNLV’s first four-day break, senior Chace Stanback smiled.
“We’re cool with it,” Stanback said. “Trying to get home and see our families, then get back and go to work.”
Junior guard Anthony Marshall said he and his teammates probably wouldn’t stray too far from a gym while away. That’s because the hard work still lies ahead.
And it picks up Jan. 14 at San Diego State.
“There’s nothing more important than doing well in the NCAA Tournament because of the nature of what we do, but I think one of the things that’s happened is that regular-season conference titles have been become a little bit devalued,” Rice said. “And there’s nothing more important to a program in terms of proving consistency than winning regular-season conference championships.”
UNLV has three more games in its non-conference schedule: Wednesday at home against Central Arkansas (5-6), New Year’s Eve at Hawaii (6-5), and Jan. 5 at Cal State Bakersfield (6-6). The Rebels will be big favorites in each one of those games.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs (11-2) also have three very winnable games leading into the Mountain West opener for both teams.
“We know we have to get a lot better to get ready for that opener at San Diego State,” Rice said, “so we’ve got three games and a lot of practices to do that.”
That game, scheduled for a 1 p.m. tipoff, will be San Diego State’s sixth in a row at home. The crowd will be hostile and ready to pounce on every Rebel misstep.
But thanks to a strenuous non-conference road this season, that’s old hat for UNLV.
With Rice’s point about regular-season conference titles in mind, the UNLV schedule to this point has been perfect for the team. The Rebels won’t likely face anything in the Mountain West that they haven’t already come across.
“Our goal is to win the conference title,” Marshall said. “Just the schedule we’ve had, we’ve played teams that like to slow it down and we’ve played teams that like to play fast. We’ve seen a little bit of everything.”
And they’ve fared well against it all.
“It’s not enough just to play those games, we need to win a number of them,” Rice said. “And we’ve been able to do that.”
UNLV has put itself in good position nationally. Now it’s almost time to handle the conference business they’ve been working for.