Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014 | 8:20 p.m.
The same thing that appeared so difficult for Rashad Vaughn one week ago couldn’t have looked easier today at the Thomas & Mack Center. After a week of practice to get over what ailed him physically (bronchitis) and what has ailed UNLV’s offense (screens top the list), Vaughn broke out for a career-high 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting, his most efficient performance in a Rebel uniform.
“Everything was flowing,” Vaughn said after a 75-59 victory against Albany (2-3).
Vaughn also had four rebounds, two assists and a couple of steals, and most importantly his production came in the game’s critical moments. During about a three-minute stretch in the second half, Vaughn scored nine points on 4-of-4 shooting with a steal and an assist to expand the Rebels’ lead from 10 to 19 and effectively put the game away.
“He was pretty phenomenal tonight; we all saw that,” said senior point guard Cody Doolin, who had six assists, five rebounds and four points.
Vaughn said he didn’t tell any of the coaches about being sick in New York, but whether it was that or the stage or both, the box score told the story. Vaughn shot 4-of-19 over the two games and sat on the bench for most of the final five minutes against Temple.
“I don’t really like to give excuses,” Vaughn said.
While the poor shooting was Vaughn’s obvious headline coming out of the trip, UNLV coach Dave Rice clung to something else. During that final stretch against the Owls, when the top-10 recruit was out not because of injury or foul trouble but because it was best for the team, Vaughn was up and cheering as much as anyone else on the bench.
“That sent a message to our guys how much he’s about team,” Rice said.
Vaughn keyed the big run, but sophomore Christian Wood’s second straight dominant game was just as important. Against a small Great Danes lineup, Wood registered 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 37 minutes, his fourth double-double in the first five games.
“I’m just out there grabbing rebounds and doing whatever Cody says,” Wood said, only half-joking.
The other big difference was the Rebels’ patience on screens, waiting for them to get set and then cutting hard. That was a focus throughout practice, and it was so much better that Rice didn’t mind the Rebels getting called for a couple of illegal screens.
“We wouldn’t have gotten any illegal screens the first few games because we weren’t setting any,” he said.
Doolin played 33 minutes, a little under his season average, and for the first time this season there was some consistency from the offense in his absence. The Rebels (4-1) played without sophomore guard Kendall Smith (ankle) for the third straight game, so it was 6-foot-6 freshman Pat McCaw running things with Vaughn and senior Jelan Kendrick (nine points, five rebounds, five turnovers) carrying the scoring load during that first-half stretch.
“I’m trying not to play Cody 38 minutes,” said Rice, who added that Smith would be available for Wednesday's game at Arizona State.
In close games, though, Rice finds himself sticking with the starter, and during his tenure the starting point guard has often averaged around 37 or 38 minutes per game. Unless Rice can force himself to consistently get the backup in earlier, then these kinds of games — UNLV led by at least seven most of the first half and never trailed in the second half — will be key for saving legs.
The Rebels needed to savor their time in the Mack because they won’t play another game here for two and a half weeks during the annual rodeo road trip. As the National Finals Rodeo takes over campus, the Rebels head to their first true road game Wednesday at Arizona State and then play St. Katherine at Orleans Arena on Dec. 5.
The Sun Devils aren’t the same team as last season, when guard Jahii Carson torched the Rebels for 40 points, but they do have some outside shooters and more size than UNLV had to account for today. It’s a step back up in competition and another chance for Vaughn to try to take his show on the road.