Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015 | 11 p.m.
UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice has a business idea: Take the determination and anger that permeates throughout a losing locker room and create a concentrated dose available to any coach looking to spark his players.
Does it really work? Rice will be asked, at which point he could hand them the box score for tonight’s 103-68 victory against South Dakota (7-6). The Rebels (9-4) closed out nonconference play with 18 made 3-pointers, which is tied for the second-most in Mountain West history, and there was nary a sign of second-half drought in one of Rice’s most lopsided victories against a Division I opponent.
“I need to put that in a bottle somehow and spray it on guys,” Rice said. “… We’d really have something.”
UNLV made its first six shots and six players finished in double-digit scoring, including freshman Jalen Poyser leading the way with a career-high 25 points in front of an announced crowd of 11,990 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I knew in shoot around today, I knew in the locker room before the game that we were going to play well,” Rice said.
Poyser played only six minutes in Saturday’s loss at Arizona, but he was in double digits five of the previous seven before that. Freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr.’s absence because of a thigh contusion meant there were more minutes to spread around, and Rice held starting guards Pat McCaw and Jerome Seagears out a combined 14 minutes under their season averages. Those went to Poyser, who shot 6-of-9 with four rebounds and five assists to one turnover in a career-high 25 minutes.
Seagears drilled his first three shots, all of them 3s, and finished with 12 points, three steals and six assists to two turnovers while McCaw enjoyed not needing to shoot. The team’s leading scorer, who in general would prefer to be an anonymous cog, tallied seven assists to one turnover, five rebounds and three steals while going more than 27 minutes into the game before an official shot attempt.
UNLV led by 17 at halftime and the margin never dipped below 13 the remainder of the game. The Rebels made that happen not only with their shooting but also other elements like rebounding, where they won the overall battle 35-25 and allowed only two individual Coyotes to grab one offensive rebound each.
“Guys have taken that step and we’re starting to figure it out a bit,” said junior Ben Carter, who along with Derrick Jones Jr. was the only Rebel to play more than a minute and not net a 3-point attempt.
That’s OK with Carter, a Bishop Gorman High grad who for the second straight home game was the lone player brought back to answer for the Rebels at a postgame press conference. This time it was a under much more pleasant circumstances, as many Rebels had to leave the Mack quickly after the victory to catch flights home for the holiday break.
UNLV will practice again on Dec. 26, a few days ahead of the Mountain West opener Dec. 30 at home against Fresno State. This is the third straight year that the Rebels have completed nonconference play at 9-4, and while the team has always been confident entering league play, this game in particular has given the Rebels some bounce because of a few individual performances.
In addition to Poyser’s breakout and Seagears’ shooting, sophomore guard Jordan Cornish made as many 3-pointers in five second-half attempts (three) as he had made in 29 previous attempts this season. The struggles from UNLV’s 3-point percentage leader have been a concern but the Rebels have been over the top in their cheering for him this season in part because they’ve seen what he’s done to try to fix it.
“Jordan Cornish has been working his tail off,” Carter said. “After practice, before practice getting shots up and really working his way out of a slump. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys for working through those things.”
The Mountain West race appears to be as open as it has ever been. Yet history doesn’t favor the Rebels, who haven’t won a regular season conference title since they were co-champs in the Mountain West’s debut season of 1999-00.
Even in a down year, snapping that streak is going to take more than something you could find in a make-believe bottle.
“We’ve given ourselves a fighting chance,” Rice said, “and now we’ve got to come back after Christmas and practice even harder than ever before.”