Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014 | 11:30 p.m.
When UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice was asked to evaluate his team today at the midway point of the season, the Rebels’ fourth-year coach had to stop and think.
They struggled to beat inferior opponents in the initial two games of the season and have three defeats by double digits. But all that was before this week.
The Rebels on Tuesday beat third-ranked Arizona for one of the most important wins in the Rice tenure and continued the strong play today with a convincing 79-45 victory against visiting Southern Utah. A 9-3 record is a significant step in the right direction with the development of players on the young UNLV roster, especially considering the Rebels have momentum on their side for the Mountain West opener New Year’s Eve at Wyoming.
And considering where they were exactly one week ago, having scored just 46 points in a loss to Utah.
“The thing I am pleased about is we’ve made progress from the start of practice until now,” Rice said. “Certainly we are disappointed with some of the outcomes of games, but we are also pleased with the fact we have gotten a lot better. We are as ready as we can be under the circumstances with the new guys we have and some injury issues and playing the tough schedule we have played.”
The start of the second half against Southern Utah validated the improvements. By no means was Southern Utah a quality opponent, but the Rebels of 45 days ago weren’t equipped to dominate in this fashion.
After being held without a field goal for the final 5:51 of the first half, the Rebels opened the second half on a 21-1 scoring run. Rashad Vaughn drained a few nothing-but-net 3-pointers, Christian Wood had a highlight-reel-style dunk you’ll surely see on television replays and the Rebels’ continued to play suffocating defense.
Despite the setbacks — they never had a chance against Stanford, blew a double-digit lead against Arizona State and couldn’t find a rhythm offensively against Utah — the Rebels survived their brutal nonleague schedule with a respectable record. They have the nation’s 21st toughest schedule out of more than 300 teams.
“Every game we are getting better,” said freshman Jordan Cordish, who scored nine points today and is credited with bringing toughness to the Rebel rotation. “Going into Wyoming we are more comfortable with each other and where each other is going to be (on the floor). (It’s) the confidence level going in and knowing we can compete with anybody in the country.”
The turnaround will be put to the test against Wyoming (11-2), who has a 10-0 home record and one of the best home court advantages in the Mountain West — everything from the high altitude in Laramie to vocal fans. And it will be a new experience for the Rebels because all of their scholarship players haven’t played in Laramie.
That’s where Rice hopes his aggressive scheduling in the nonleague season pays off.
“As much as anything, (the schedule) is about helping a new team get ready for conference season,” Rice said.
After the Rebels defeated Arizona and had two days off for the holidays, Rice thought he’d have difficulties getting players focused during today’s walk through practice. But ...
“I went to shootaround thinking I might have to get after guys, and kept looking for things, and there was nothing to get after them about,” Rice said.
They continued to impress against Southern Utah in scoring on their initial four possession to never trail. Wood made his first seven shots to finish with 22 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. He briefly left the court in the second half with stomach issues, which also bothered him on Christmas, Rice said.
Vaughn also scored 22 points for UNLV on 5 of 8 shooting on 3-pointers, and reserve guard Dantley Walker appeared to steal the show during seven minutes of action in the second half. The fan favorite made two 3-pointers on four attempts, bringing loud cheers each time he touched the ball.
Rice was most impressed with the play of Cornish and senior Jelan Kendrick. Kendrick filled the stat sheet with 11 rebounds, seven assists, three blocked shots and just two points. Cornish continues to provide energy off the bench, converting a 4-point play in the first half after being fouled while making a 3-pointer.
“I thought one of the strong points of our game was Jelan Kendrick. Two points and he could care less,” Rice said. “...That is kind of the epitome of what we want our program to be like. Guys who don’t care about anything except helping their team win.”
At least for the past week, the Rebels' season is being characterized by those wins, and not early-season defeats. What a difference a week makes.
“We made a big jump as a team, basically maturing as a team and coming more together and buying into the coaches,” Vaughn said.
Goodluck held out
UNLV was down to seven available scholarship players when starting center Goodluck Okonoboh didn’t dress because of a knee injury. Dwayne Morgan started in his place, scoring six points and grabbing eight rebounds in 15 minutes.
Rice didn’t know if Okonoboh would be ready to return for the Wyoming game, saying he’d wait for a report for trainers.
“I always defer to medical staff and I was told he couldn’t go,” Rice said. “But I am going to hope and say my prayers we can get him back (for Wyoming).”
Morgan had two fouls in the initial four minutes, then after sitting out nearly 10 minutes, picked up a third foul before halftime. He fouled out.
That’s a formula for disaster against Wyoming.