Rebels moving on from tough loss by focusing on payback against CSU

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AP Photo/The Coloradoan, Erin Hull

Colorado State’s J.J. Avila, center, and UNLV’s Kevin Olekaibe come down from the basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at Moby Arena in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State won 75-57.

The extra 0.1 second that, in a perfect world, UNLV would have had at the end of Saturday’s one-point loss at Boise State doesn’t help the Rebels get that game back. Nor does it give them any kind of leg up in tonight’s home game against Colorado State (15-13, 6-9).

The Rebels (17-10, 8-6) have to move past the acknowledgment that there was a timing error — they should have had 3.4 seconds instead of 3.3 to start Deville Smith’s oh-so-close to a game-winning 3-pointer — and not fall into a trap that often snares teams after an emotional letdown.

“There’s a period of mourning in the locker room,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said, “and then you wake up the next morning and realize there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.”

Well, not that much basketball. UNLV has four games remaining before the Mountain West tournament begins on Wednesday, March 12, at the Thomas & Mack Center. If the Rebels are going to stave off playing on that first day they need to bounce back and avoid the first three-game losing streak of Rice’s tenure.

UNLV is currently tied for third with Wyoming and Boise State. All three teams are a half-game ahead of sixth-place UNR. The top five teams start playing on Thursday while the six through 11 seeds meet at the Mack on Wednesday night.

With two road trips (Air Force and UNR) plus a home game against San Diego State still on tap, this matchup, which will air at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network, may actually be UNLV's easiest remaining game. And it comes against a team that whupped the Rebels by 18 in their last meeting.

The Rams crippled the Rebels with constant cuts to the basket where they found unmolested lanes to the basket. UNLV’s guards kept trailing around screens instead of jumping in front of them, and rim protector Khem Birch was often away from the basket guarding J.J. Avila, who hit two 3s early in that Colorado State win.

UNLV’s adjustments will start with putting Birch on CSU forward Gerson Santo, who has attempted exactly zero 3-pointers this season.

“(Birch) will be much closer to the basket,” Rice said.

The same goes for freshman Christian Wood, whose recent breakthrough has been a bright spot during an 0-2 week. Wood no longer looks like he’s constantly thinking instead of just knowing where he’s supposed to be on defense, and his offense has been very efficient thanks to an uptick in two-point attempts.

Wood was 0-for-10 on 3-pointers over an eight-game stretch heading into the Boise State game, but starting with the New Mexico loss he made a more concerted effort to put the ball on the deck and attack the basket.

“I thought (Wood) was an X-factor at Boise,” Rice said. “… We’re completely focused on the next game and this season but I think everyone sees the promise and bright future of Chris.”

Colorado State has had a tough time in league play, losing three of its last four and six of its last nine. When the Rams are successful it’s usually because they’re grabbing offensive rebounds, getting to the foul line and not turning over the ball.

UNLV’s goal should be to control at least two of those areas. The free throws would seem easy, since the Rebels rank second in the nation in fewest free throw attempts allowed per field goal attempt, but in their last meeting the Rebels allowed a season-high 28 free-throw attempts. Colorado State made 18 of them, or exactly the margin of victory.

Rice said he didn’t shy away from pointing out all of UNLV’s breakdowns in that last meeting during film prep for the rematch. He knows the risk of a hangover from a difficult loss like the one the Rebels suffered at Boise State, so it may actually help that UNLV got embarrassed by CSU the first time around.

“We should never need motivation to play any team,” Rice said, “but there should be extra motivation when we performed so poorly against an opponent.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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