Friday, Dec. 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- Stars from 1977 UNLV team remember their Final Four game against North Carolina
- UNLV, not North Carolina, will be ranked team for Saturday showdown
- Birch surprises himself with stellar offensive performance in UNLV’s victory
- Rebels must focus on the task at hand before their holiday break
- UNLV senior on watch list for award given to nation’s top point guard
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We were able to play how we wanted to play.
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.
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.
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.
You can see our recruiting class now and the things that are coming in the future. That game propelled us into the national spotlight.
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.
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.
I was tempted, but I did not charge the court.
After that game, I realized I shouldn’t have been on the court. It was good for the fans, though.
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.
That’s when people started taking notice of us.
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.