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UNLV Basketball:

Rebels escape victorious against Cal Poly in Zimmerman’s debut

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L.E. Baskow

Cal Poly forward Luke Meikle (21) is boxed in by UNLV guard Jerome Seagears (2), UNLV forward Derrick Jones Jr., (1) and UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr., (33) during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday, November 13, 2015.

UNLV Edges Cal Poly

UNLV forward Derrick Jones Jr., (1) gets up for a dunk over Cal Poly forward Luke Melkie (21) at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday, November 13, 2015. Launch slideshow »

UNLV's Stephen Zimmerman Jr. has seen dozens of basketball games at the Thomas & Mack Center, but the vantage point is significantly different from the court.

The 7-foot freshman from Bishop Gorman High found himself scanning the crowd from face to face, absorbing the moment. He also tried to use the fans to help propel the Rebels past a pesky Cal Poly team that pushed the 2015-16 season opener down to the wire.

“I was definitely looking at everybody and trying to feed off their energy as much as I could,” Zimmerman said. “It was crazy. I’ve been waiting to play a college game for so long, and now that I’m here I’m definitely trying to soak it in.”

It feels better to soak in a win than a loss, and while the game film isn’t going to be pretty, UNLV will take the 74-72 victory and move on to Monday’s home tilt against New Mexico Highlands. Now that a regular-season game is in the books, there’s a baseline for what to expect from this year’s Rebels, and coach Dave Rice wants his team to be held accountable by the process more than one result.

“We want to be judged on how we respond to what happens,” Rice said. “How we respond to success and how we respond to adversity.”

Adversity came in a variety of ways Friday night, some self-inflicted and others through a whistle. UNLV trailed by three at halftime with 10 turnovers, 1-of-10 3-point shooting and 28 combined fouls.

The NCAA, in the offseason, put a renewed emphasis on contact fouls. The predictable early result was disjointed basketball that rarely went three or four straight possessions without a foul.

“The way the game’s being called, we’re going to have multiple big guys with two and three fouls in the first half all year long,” Rice said. “That’s just how the game’s going to be.”

If the calls stay consistent, Rice said, everyone will adjust and games might inch closer to the free-flowing style the NCAA intended to implement with the emphasis. However, two years ago games started out very similar to this and then the calls slowly disappeared, returning things to where they had been at the start of the season.

That part is out of UNLV’s control, though. What the Rebels can focus on is trying to replicate the first 10 minutes of the second half, when Zimmerman started the charge with an and-one and, “we just took off from there,” Rice said.

The Rebels started the second half on a 12-0 run and led by as much as 13 in the second half. Zimmerman had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, sophomore Pat McCaw came off the bench for a team-leading 15 points and seniorJerome Seagears had 11 points and five assists.

The problem was what happened between that run and the end of the game, a stretch when UNLV’s depth figured it would be able to pull away, but the Mustangs kept capitalizing on mistakes and tied the game at 67-67 with 2:20 remaining.

At the start of the game, UNLV didn’t handle Cal Poly’s zone defense as well as it wanted and ended up taking a lot of long shots without first getting the ball inside.

“Those are shots they want us to take,” Seagears said.

Said Rice, “We want to shoot 3s but we don’t want to shoot them off one pass without penetration.”

That issue was mostly fixed at halftime, though. What persisted were turnovers and one of UNLV’s biggest nonconference issues from last season: missed free throws.

In the final four minutes, the Rebels went 4-of-10 at the free-throw line before Seagears sank a pair with 14 seconds left to effectively ice the game. It was a similar feeling to the first two games last year, when Morehead State and Sam Houston State came into the Mack and lost by a combined three points.

Those games were scheduled for UNLV just like this one was as a leadup to the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. A couple of guys who were in those two games, sophomores Jordan Cornish and Dwayne Morgan, helped pull this one out with their energy and defense, and when the Rebels look around at scores they’ll start to feel even better about their victory.

Wisconsin lost to Western Illinois. Boise State lost to Montana. Two upcoming nonconference opponents, Arizona State and UCLA, lost at home to Sacramento State and Monmouth, respectively.

This wasn’t exactly what the Rebels or their 12,201 fans in attendance had in mind, but the guy who most recently went from their view to wearing a jersey appreciated them, their noise and the victory all the same.

“It’s an amazing thing to have fans like that,” Zimmerman said.

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

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