Friday, Nov. 25, 2011 | 10:22 p.m.
- Big weekend for Rebels could include facing top-ranked North Carolina (11-25-2011)
- It wasn’t pretty early, but Rebels close strong in confidence-building victory against Cal Poly (11-23-2011)
- Mike Moser named the Mountain West Conference player of the week (11-21-2011)
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice always preaches to his players to take one game at a time, refusing to allow them to look ahead to what might be a more attractive game on the schedule.
On Saturday, Rice won’t have to remind his players of the philosophy. They definitely won’t be looking ahead to next week’s contest at UC Santa Barbara.
That’s because the Rebels have the matchup they were guilty of looking ahead to all week — a showdown with top-ranked North Carolina.
UNLV pulled away late from USC Friday in the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena, overcoming early shooting problems and the Trojans’ physical style of play for a hard-fought 66-55 victory in advancing to face North Carolina in the tournament’s finals.
The 7:30 p.m. game, which will be televised by ESPN2, will be a test to gauge the Rebels development under Rice, the program’s first-year head coach.
UNLV beat Morgan State and Cal Poly this week in the tournament, with the players surely eyeing a potential game against the best team college basketball has to offer. Now, they can finally begin preparing for and talking about the game.
“It is real exciting, definitely,” UNLV senior guard Oscar Bellfield said.
North Carolina, which on Friday beat South Carolina 87-62, has a deep roster of NBA prospects that gives every team it plays matchup problems. In a true testament to the talent level, there were several professional scouts working the event Friday to evaluate the Tar Heels players.
UNLV coaches and players were also front and center for North Carolina’s game with South Carolina. The Tar Heels led by double digits most of the night. Kendall Marshall finished with 13 assists, Harrison Barnes scored a game-high 21 points and P.J. Hariston finished with 19 points thanks to 5-of-6 shooting on 3-pointers.
“We haven’t talked about it until now. Our philosophy is to practice as hard as we can and try to win our game next game,” Rice said. “And our next game happens to be against the No.1 team in the country. It is a tremendous challenge.
“It is something as players, as coaches, as fans we look forward to,” he said. “We know what a difficult challenge it will be. We look forward to see how we match up.”
The Rebels (6-0) almost didn’t hold up their end of the bargain in setting up the meeting with North Carolina. The score was tied at 44-all against USC midway through the second half, but UNLV was the better team late in outscoring the Trojans 22-11 to close the game.
The Rebels struggled with their 3-point shooting all night in making just seven of 23 attempts, but Kendall Wallace and Justin Hawkins each drained 3-pointers in the final eight minutes to key the late-game rally.
Hawkins finished with 10 points in 27 minutes and played suffocating defense on the perimeter the entire night. He entered the season as a role player but has become one of the Rebels' most utilized players and was on the court with the game on the line late.
“Justin was really key,” Rice said. “It is interesting as coach, I sub on feel and for me, so often, I want Justin out there for what he brings."
USC sophomore Dewayne Dedmon, a 7-foot post player and one of the Trojans' top players, finished with five points and three rebounds in just five minutes before fouling out.
His final foul came on a technical midway through the second half with USC holding a one-point lead. Oscar Bellfield buried the technical foul shots and UNLV never looked back. USC’s Aaron Fuller, who had a game-high 16 points, also fouled out.
“That gave us a boost of energy and extra points,” Bellfield said of the USC technical. “That helped us a lot.”
While USC losing two of its top guns sparked the UNLV rally, it wasn’t the lone reason. Like UNLV did Tuesday in getting stronger late against Cal Poly, the Rebels eventually flexed their muscles and imposed their will in the final minutes.
Give credit to USC for slowing the pace of the game and not allowing UNLV to run its uptempo style of attack. One of the lone highlights on the fast break for the Rebels came when Bellfield found Wallace at the top of the key in transition, giving Wallace a perfect feed to drain a momentum-gaining 3-pointer in the second half.
UNLV won for the sixth consecutive time to open the season, playing in its first game away from the Thomas & Mack Center. But it wasn’t much of a road game with Orleans Arena a few miles from campus.
“It is one of those deals were we will get better,” Rice said. “It was the first game out of our building and we found a way to win, in spite of the fact we did not shoot as well as we can shoot the basketball. That is credit to a good basketball team.”
Only time will tell if UNLV will be able to run its high-energy style of play against North Carolina. The UNLV players, however, don’t plan on backing down.
“It is just a ranking,” Hawkins said. “North Carolina is a real good team. We know all their players. I know coach will do a good job right now scouting the game. They have probably scouted them before. I just know (we) have to get a good night's rest and come out prepared tomorrow.”
Bellfield led UNLV with 14 points, Mike Moser had a double-double of 10 points and 13 rebounds, and Anthony Marshall had a game-high five assists.
The Orleans Arena, a Boyd Gaming facility located just west of the Las Vegas Strip, is one of the nation’s leading mid-sized arenas, and was recently ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 internationally among venues of similar size by Venues Today Magazine.
The Arena hosts more than 200 events each year, including concerts by top names like Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Van Halen, Brooks & Dunn, Black Eyed Peas, Akon and Rihanna; family favorites like The Harlem Globetrotters and Circus Spectacular; and a wide variety of sporting events, including NCAA basketball tournaments, the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference Basketball Championships, mixed martial arts with Superior Cage Combat, and major motorsports events.
The arena serves as home to the Las Vegas Wranglers professional ECHL hockey team, the Las Vegas Legends professional indoor soccer team, and the Lingerie Football League’s Las Vegas Sin. Stay connected to the Orleans Arena on Facebook (www.facebook.com/orleansarena) and on Twitter (@orleansarena).