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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

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Instant Analysis: Despite MWC loss, there is still plenty of basketball left for UNLV

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Anthony Marshall buries his face as time expires in their Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal game against New Mexico Friday, March 9, 2012. New Mexico won 72-67 and will face San Diego State in the championship game.

UNLV vs. New Mexico

KSNV coverage of the UNLV Rebels playing against the New Mexico Lobos, March 9, 2012.

MWC Tournament Semis - UNLV v New Mexico

UNLV guard Anthony Marshall heads off the court after their Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal game against New Mexico  Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack Center. New Mexico won 72-67 and will face San Diego State in the championship game. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

Rebels knocked out by New Mexico

Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer talk about the UNLV basketball team's 72-67 loss to New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals and take their best guess at where the Rebels will be seeded for next week's NCAA Tournament.

Let's not be so fast to write the UNLV basketball team’s obituary for this season.

After all, there are still more games — OK, at least one more game — to be played this season, games in a tournament where a few wins would help erase the bad feelings from what happened Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Rebels continued their late-season slide in losing 72-67 to New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference semifinals, coming up short in a back-and-forth affair that will surely go down as one of the league’s best tournament games since its creation in 1999. If only CBS College Sports offered classic-game replays.

No matter how you slice and dice it, UNLV got beat by a better team. You can’t fault the Rebels’ effort or desire in this one — they flat-out lost in a closely contested game that could have gone either way.

Maybe I’m a little too positive in the aftermath of a game they should have won, but it’s not like the defeat to New Mexico last month on the road where the Rebels (26-8) didn’t bring their best in the second half. Friday, they tried to scratch and claw their way to victory, but couldn’t duplicate some of their earlier-season magic in falling to a 6-5 mark since Feb. 1.

It’s easy to pick apart the Rebels’ weaknesses, and trust me, as New Mexico exploited, there are a handful of things that need to be fixed before next week’s NCAA Tournament.

But let’s look at some of the positives:

• Moser, Marshall want the ball when it counts : Entering the tournament, I questioned who would take the big shot for UNLV with the game on the line. And, more important, would that shot go in. Both Anthony Marshall and Mike Moser — who I assumed would be up for the challenge — made big buckets late against New Mexico. Moser drained a 3-pointer and Marshall converted a three-point play to erase a six-point deficit and even the game at 63-all with about two minutes remaining. Every team needs a player willing to step up with the game on the line, and the duo of Marshall and Moser showed the courage to be the goat or the hero.

• Great basketball IQ from players : With about 12 minutes to play, Marshall was whistled for what would have been his fourth foul. But Brice Massamba quickly pleaded to the referee that he was the one who committed the foul. The ref surprisingly agreed and switched the call. Marshall would have been forced to the bench, but Massamba sacrificed himself in a play that shows his knowledge of the game to keep one of the team’s best players in the lineup. Earlier in the game, Carlos Lopez cleverly drew a foul of flop that would have made Vlade Divac jealous. And, senior point guard Oscar Bellfield continues to provide solid smarts with the ball in his hands. As UNLV has shown, they lack in a few spots, making their basketball smarts a strength heading into next week.

• Rice calling the right shots: : It’s easy to forget that Dave Rice is a first-year head coach because more times than not he makes the right in-game adjustments. Late in the first half, with Marshall on the bench nursing three fouls and Moser sidelined with two, the coach went with post players Massamba and Lopez in the lineup at the same time — a rarity. They responded by holding off a New Mexico charge to close the half, using a trio of 3-pointers from Kendall Wallace for a 34-31 halftime lead. In the second half, Rice opted to stay with the hot-hand of Wallace at times over Chace Stanback, his second-leading scorer who struggled (yet again) in posting just seven points.

Let’s look ahead …

When UNLV opened the season with eight straight wins, and when they almost cracked the top 10 of the national rankings, several die-hards predicted a Sweet 16 run come March. Tonight, those same folks aren’t as optimistic.

UNLV has likely played itself into a No. 6 or 7 seed for next week’s NCAA Tournament, which isn’t all too bad. At the beginning of the year, my guess is the players and coaches would have been thrilled with a No. 7 seed.

Rice’s first season is already categorized a success for how he’s brought Rebel Fever back to the Las Vegas Valley. One tournament win would be icing on the cake. Two, would turn this town upside down — and make a MWC tourney loss to New Mexico a distant memory.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or ray.brewer@lasvegassun.com. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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