Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015 | 11:20 p.m.
There was no banner, but UNLV coach Dave Rice declared mission accomplished tonight, and it works whether you’re looking specifically at this 84-64 victory against Southern Utah or the entire opening three-game stretch.
UNLV’s nonconference schedule has been highlighted often throughout the offseason, and the first big test is the next game, Monday night at 8:30 against UCLA in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. The Rebels’ job up to this point has been to win, yes, but also to get ready for this trip and later challenges like true road games at Arizona and Wichita State.
Now that they’ve emerged 3-0, the Rebels feel good about their game-by-game improvement and what it could mean in one of the biggest nonconference events in the country.
“It’s one of those prestigious tournaments that you always watch as a kid,” said sophomore Pat McCaw, who scored a career-high 24 points. “Now that we’re playing in it, we really want to go and try to win it all.”
UNLV didn’t fare too well in a similar situation last year, when it slogged through a couple of home games before traveling to New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and losing by 29 to Stanford. That roster wasn’t ready for the big stage, and even if this one isn’t either, the Rebels would rather find that out now than later.
“We schedule like we schedule for that reason,” Rice said.
Everybody from the players to the fans wants UNLV to play big-time opponents, and Rice said more than 300 Rebels fans are expected to make the trip out to Maui. Last year, those who traveled east hoping for a UNLV-Duke meeting in the second game were disappointed, and the same thing could happen if the Rebels lose the first game and face Division II Chaminade rather than top-10 Kansas.
That’s a risk of playing tough competition, though, and at this point the Rebels are just excited to try out this full-court pressure against a team that can compete athletically. They know it works great against Southern Utah, which turned it over 12 times in the first half alone, and that was one of a few things that Rice felt UNLV could build on out of this one.
The biggest factor was probably UNLV’s own turnovers, which didn’t crack double digits. Senior Jerome Seagears and McCaw combined for no turnovers, and the team finished with only eight.
“That’s a huge deal going into next week,” Rice said.
McCaw played his best game of the season, shooting 8-of-12 with four rebounds, three assists and three steals that led to three layups, although he missed one attempt. Stephen Zimmerman Jr. recorded his second straight double-double despite not attempting a shot in the final 17 minutes, and Derrick Jones Jr. registered 19 points in 19 minutes, turning in another performance that has locals trying to apply an appropriate nickname.
“We’re still deciding on that,” McCaw said. “It’s just Derrick Jones for right now.”
Next week’s national stage means an entire new audience waiting for Jones and the Rebels. UNLV will play three games in three days, and whether they emerge from that with more questions or expectations depends largely on how the full-court pressure that was so effective the last two games works.
That doesn’t mean UNLV needs to force 12 turnovers a half, just so long as its opponents feel the heat and move their feet.
“(It’s about) the cumulative effect of them having to worry about breaking the press,” Rice said. “… We want to force turnovers, but what we want to do more than that is force tempo.”
Green plays, Starr scores
One of the late-game substitutions was a little bit of a surprise as junior Tyrell Green played a couple of nights after Rice said the team was considering using a redshirt with him. Ultimately it was Green’s decision to make, and the Canadian 3-point specialist decided to take his chance at cracking the rotation this year.
“He wanted to play and we were all about it,” Rice said.
Another late-game entrant was walk-on Austin Starr, a Foothill High grad who made his first career shot on a 3-pointer in the final minute. Starr won UNLV’s preseason 3-point contest.