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For now, moral victory will have to do


TUCSON, Ariz.

There once was a song about this place, about Arizona, that said it must belong to San Francisco. That it must have lost its way. That it believes in Robin Hood and brotherhood and colors of green and gray.

A guy named Mark Lindsay sang that song. He could not possibly have had the Arizona basketball team in mind, except maybe the part about belonging to San Francisco, if you’re talking about the San Francisco teams of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones and that bunch.

These Arizona Wildcats have not lost their way. They started the day ranked No. 2, and they probably will be No. 1 when the new polls come out Monday.

And yet UNLV could have beaten these guys.

Inside of a minute to play the Rebels were down two, and they had the ball, and they had a chance to tie it up or to go ahead with a long one.

But they did not tie it up. They did not go ahead with a long one.

Arizona won, 63-58, but the white-clad Arizona throng didn’t start with the “We’re No. 1” chant until there were only 16 seconds to play. Most in the white-clad throng, along with Las Vegas oddsmakers, figured they would be chanting a whole lot earlier than that.

Afterward, Rebels coach Dave Rice said there are no moral victories for a program such as UNLV’s. He must have said this three or four times.

But I bet Rice slept a lot better Saturday night than he did after UNLV lost to Dixie State in the preseason, better than he did when the Rebels struggled against Adams State, better than he did when the Rebels got blown out by UC Santa Barbara, better than he did when they frittered away a chance to beat Illinois.

Better than he did when they beat UT-Martin, because what can you tell from beating a “U” and a “T” and a hyphen and a Martin at home?

All of the aforementioned were at home. They occurred in friendly confines, not in hostile environments.

McKale Center definitely was a hostile environment Saturday, even if most Arizona fans probably forgot about the time Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels broke into the trophy case here during the Final Four years and took a felt pen to one of the keepsake basketballs that one of Lute Olson’s teams had worked so hard to get.

If you were around during the Final Four years, you’ll remember that didn’t go over very well down here.

This wasn’t Arizona’s best effort on Saturday, and maybe that won’t go over very well down here, either. The effort was certainly there for the Rebels, but they didn’t shoot the ball well in the second half, and that’s putting it as mildly as a Tucson winter.

In the first half, the Rebels blistered the nets at a rate of 64 percent, including 4 of 6 on 3-pointers. In the second half, UNLV cooled to 28 percent and 0 of 8 on 3s. Rice and the players said the shots were there but that they didn’t fall; this is what coaches and players almost always say.

Let’s leave it at this: Other than this one shot Jelan Kendrick flung toward the hoop during a critical juncture toward the end, the Rebels didn’t take a bunch of ill-advised shots this time. The guys who should have been taking the shots — Bryce Dejean-Jones, Khem Birch — took most of them during the taut stretches.

Not all fell, and the difference is that Roscoe Smith wasn’t there for many putbacks.

Smith, who went into the game leading the nation with a 16.2 rebounding average, managed only six boards against Arizona. That was his season low; afterward, Smith said there were times it felt like he was blocking out three guys at once.

Arizona pounded UNLV on the boards, 41-29.

Whereas a lot of people were pointing to point guard Kendall Smith’s leg cramps as perhaps the deciding factor, Roscoe Smith now can say with utmost certainty that it’s much easier to clean glass against a “U”and a “T” and a hyphen and a Martin than it is against Arizona’s tall Saguaros.

Still, this was an excellent effort by a UNLV team that hasn’t had many to speak of.

The Rebels even made 8 of 10 at the free-throw line. There was a sign in the McKale Center tunnel that said any suspicious activity should be reported to authorities. At least three Las Vegas reporters reached for their cellphones.

Before the game, a lot of UNLV fans had made their way to the bistros and cafes on University Boulevard just off the Arizona campus, and some would stop you and ask what you thought of the Rebels’ chances.

But when they asked this, you could almost hear the wistfulness, like you can hear it from a Cubs fan in the odd year Chicago makes the baseball playoffs.

So regardless of what Dave Rice thinks, or at least says to reporters, I believe there are moral victories. I believe a 63-58 loss to an Arizona team that probably will be ranked No. 1 on Monday qualifies as one.

I believe this is why when Rice used the word “egregious” during his postgame remarks, he asked reporters how was that, him using a word like “egregious?” Then he broke into a grin that suggested the Rebels were going to be all right.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski