Chris Pepper is a friend. He’s also a big UNLV basketball fan. His father has season tickets and Chris tags along for the free ride. He happened past press row at halftime on Wednesday night and mentioned the story about Dave Rice taking his team to a hotel the previous evening in hopes of changing the Rebels’ fate at home.
“It’s like those television commercials,” Pepper said. “Whatever works.”
For his next trick, Rice will begin producing spots for Bud Light.
Like the lunatic fan everyone despises but tolerates because the home team wins when he attends the party or the nutcase who retires to his basement to create more good luck for his favorite side, UNLV should immediately enroll in a local hotel’s rewards program.
The Rebels have six Mountain West games and perhaps as many as three additional ones in the league tournament remaining at the Thomas &Mack Center, meaning Rice and his staff and players should prepare to devour as many turn-down mints as they can gather.
UNLV snapped its two-game home-losing streak by thoroughly outplaying Utah State in every phase, beating the Aggies 62-42 before an announced gathering of 12,919.
There was a three-minute stretch to end the first half in which UNLV played about as well it has and can, turning a 24-24 game into a 34-24 advantage at intermission. It did so with a lineup that included reserves like Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Jelan Kendrick and Kendall Smith and Daquan Cook. It did so by turning defense into offense.
“When we have been good this season, we have been able to get stops and create turnovers and get out in transition and be unselfish,” Rice said. “We have been disappointed with how we have played at home, but we came out tonight with great energy from start to finish.
“It’s the first opportunity I have had to coach against someone I worked for in (Utah State head coach Stew Morrill). He’s one of the best coaches in America. I learned 10 years of things working for him for one year. He’s a fabulous coach. I was very proud of our guys.”
The headlines beforehand were about Rice’s decision to try and limit distractions at home by taking the Rebels to a hotel Tuesday night.
Then they went out and won by 20.
Kids feed off this stuff. They buy into things that produce success. They believe in such motivational tactics.
It’s a nice little story. It didn’t win UNLV the game. Defense did.
Utah State prides itself on its half-court execution offensively, and entered with averages of 74.1 points and 48 percent shooting and a conference-leading 42 percent on 3-pointers.
It shot 35 percent Wednesday, made just 2-of-17 on 3s and had a season-low four assists.
The Rebels guarded. Big-time.
The defensive intensity began in a loss at San Diego State on Saturday, when UNLV couldn’t make enough shots to overcome the Aztecs. But against a differently built and yet more consistent offensive side in Utah State, UNLV hurried the Aggies into quick shots all evening. Seniors who are normally composed in how they attack and space the floor for Morrill looked flustered.
“We did a good job staying attached to their shooters, bumping their cross screens, stunting from the weak side,” Rice said.
It was win for his team and staff. The Rebels were more prepared than Utah State and you won’t read that sentence many times regarding a Morrill-coached team, no matter the opponent. But in winning at New Mexico and competing against San Diego State until the final minutes last week, UNLV discovered a sense of swagger it has lacked.
The Rebels still sit in a tie for fifth in conference, but the sort of defense they played the past few games will keep them in any remaining game.
The part about staying in a local hotel on the eve of games at the Thomas &Mack is window dressing to the real reason UNLV played so well Wednesday. Just don’t tell the players.
“If I was smarter,” Rice said, “I would have done it a long time ago.”
It’s like the fan nobody likes and the nutcase heading back to the basement.
It’s like my buddy Chris Pepper says.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.