The veteran gambler said it best at halftime:
“You knew it was over when you saw the line.”
He was speaking of the fact UNLV entered its basketball game against New Mexico on Saturday night as a 5½-point favorite, which, given the Rebels’ embarrassing result from three days prior and where each team sat in the Mountain West standings, appeared more bad joke than serious forecast.
But if this is how a desperate side responds, Dave Rice somehow needs to convince his team that it’s always coming off a loss to lowly Fresno State.
More than distress, the Rebels exhibited pride.
They beat the league’s best team 64-55 before 17,738 at the Thomas & Mack Center, beat the 15th-ranked Lobos with the sort of energy and confidence and determination needed to halt a forgettable two-game losing streak that saw UNLV drop road decisions to Boise State and Fresno.
It doesn’t erase the disaster that was the Rout in Raisin Country, but it breathes life into a season that quickly was losing its grip on something potentially special.
The ship might not be totally righted, but it’s no longer taking on water.
“We were just tired of losing,” UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones said. “I believe it was the best game we have played. I wouldn’t say it was the most important, but it might be a turning point for us.
“We played as a team at both ends of the floor, and it really worked out for us. We came out fired up. It was exciting.”
He is mistaken. It was the most important game thus far, times 10. That’s not debatable. UNLV finished the first half of conference play in fifth place, and its low point came Wednesday, when it lost to a dreadful Fresno State side 64-55, when it trailed by 16 in the second half against a team that treats offense like a bad case of the flu.
The Rebels needed a win Saturday like the Northeast needs a break from the snow.
Things are so much better when shots fall early. The Rebels took 22 3-pointers but made nine. More importantly, they were 7 of 16 over the first half, when the tone was set and the Lobos trailed from the beginning.
New Mexico was in a bad spot, leading the Rebels by three games coming in and already having witnessed how steadfast a desperate home team can be in losing at San Diego State on Jan. 26.
It’s still a long journey for UNLV to catch the Lobos, still a trek the length of Summerlin to Santa Barbara.
With no water.
“Needless to say, the last seven days were not the highlight of our season,” Rice said. “But credit our team and our assistant coaches for believing in the game plan and each other. It was a very tough week, a tough game against Fresno State. But we talked about learning from it and moving forward. We did that by beating a very, very good team.
“It doesn’t make up for losing at Boise and Fresno, but it was a terrific win. Our backs were against the wall. We certainly dug ourselves a deep hole in the (first half of league play), but everyone understands we’re in this thing together.”
The real test of this suddenly inspired play comes Wednesday at Air Force, on the road, in altitude, apparently on Military Appreciation Night when the Falcons will wear camouflage uniforms.
Rice joked — at least I think he was joking — that he hopes the Rebels will be able to find their opponent in such unique attire.
What he needs to hope is that UNLV approaches things as it did Saturday, desperate, lively, confident.
The flashes have been few and far between, but when Dejean-Jones and freshman Katin Reinhardt play well offensively in the same game as they did Saturday, things get spaced better, and more driving lanes open, and UNLV isn’t as stagnant.
The two combined for 32 points and made seven of UNLV’s 3s on a night when the Rebels were better from deep than inside. Anthony Bennett went for 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, another of Rice’s players who appeared intent on not allowing two straight losses to become three.
“Losing isn’t fun, especially if it’s against Boise State and Fresno State,” Bennett said.
This was a desperate win.
A prideful win.
A critical win.
You knew it was over when you saw the line.
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.