Getting over 91-90 in overtime and a clock that read in someone’e else favor didn’t have to be perfect for UNLV’s basketball team.
It just had to be good enough.
The Rebels were on Wednesday night, beating a Colorado State team that couldn’t match up in talent but was again coached well enough to make things interesting.
UNLV prevailed 78-70 before an announced gathering of 13,682 at the Thomas &Mack Center, whose lower bowl gets emptier by the home game for a team that has struggled mightily to win in its own building.
Learning points. It’s what a side whose NCAA Tournament fate — UNLV must win three games in three days at the Mountain West Tournament to earn a berth — is decided.
It’s what you lean on this late in a season when you are guaranteed no better than third place in conference.
UNLV lost at Boise State on Saturday in the most shattering of ways, having a 3-pointer removed from the scoreboard when it was determined the shot hadn’t been released before the clock read 0:00.
Having to regroup for a game four days later isn’t always the easiest task.
But the Rebels were routed 75-57 at CSU earlier this month and it’s common in college basketball for things to be different the second time around in a league game, especially when one side (UNLV) owns such a superior edge in talent.
The Rebels for two games now have been as good offensively in the half court as all season, taking better shots and playing inside-out and spacing the floor. They are a side with few good outside shooters and yet one that must make enough jumpers to win given how opponents defend them.
Teams are going to zone the Rebels, sag against the Rebels, front the post against the Rebels.
They tired late Wednesday and stopped moving, stopped looking for the best shot each possession. They rushed things. But they were also very good for 25 to 28 minutes, good enough to play with any conference team.
UNLV built a 10-point halftime lead by shooting 47 percent and making 6 of 15 3s.
“We have definitely made progress offensively,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We got a little fatigued late in the game from chasing Colorado State around. For the most part, we were patient. We’re always going to have to shoot more 3s than I would like, but I thought we were a tough team tonight.
“No doubt, the last time we played Colorado State, there were fantastic and we were whatever the opposite of fantastic is times 16. But this time, we thought a huge key was rebounding, and to out-rebound a Larry Eustachy-coached team 48-35 is tremendous.”
He’s right. CSU might never have the league’s best athletes, but it’s always going to be one of the toughest sides. Eustachy is an upper-tier guy in the coaching fraternity, a bit of a loon and yet terrific at producing hard-nosed players.
I believe Eustachy might have scared Rice and his staff to death with 40 seconds remaining in halftime when he strolled over to UNLV’s bench. I thought he might have been down there to fist-bump UNLV assistant coach Heath Schroyer in a show of coaches-who-don’t wear-ties solidarity move, but instead Eustachy sought out Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian and gave the UNLV great a kiss on the forehead.
Those are great moments. That was all class by Eustachy.
I really wish he would have fist-bumped Schroyer on the way back.
Then the Rams almost scared the Rebels into blowing a huge advantage.
CSU cut a 14-point deficit to just three with 7:07 remaining, but UNLV finished the game on a 14-9 run that stopped a two-game losing streak on a night Boise State lost and the Rebels moved into sole possession of third place.
“We’re playing better offensively,” UNLV junior Bryce Dejean-Jones said. “We’re playing better together, becoming more efficient. Guys are making shots. It’s big for us and hopefully (it) can carry us through this ending stretch of the season.”
There is a game at Air Fore on Saturday, one against No. 13 San Diego State here next Wednesday and a regular-season finale at UNR on March 8. The sort of offense UNLV has played for all but 10 of the last 85 minutes will have them in each one. The sort of toughness the Rebels exhibited in bouncing back from that shattering loss will make them a hard out come the conference tournament.
The key is to keep it all going.
“We had two incredible days of practice following the Boise State loss,” Rice said. “I’m really proud of our guys how they came back from that.
“I told out guys they can control just two things — their effort and their attitude.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Lon Kruger.
UNLV didn’t have to be perfect Wednesday.
It just had to be good enough.
It was and then some.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.