Run, Rebels, run: New coach has UNLV in national spotlight

A city long in need of big news and a bandwagon to jump on got both late Saturday.

Merry Christmas, Las Vegas. The UNLV Rebels just beat the best college basketball team in the country. And it wasn't particularly close.

UNLV's 90-80 victory over top-ranked North Carolina, in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational at Orleans Arena, is a signature win for a program on the rise. It gives the undefeated Rebels national buzz. It's the kind of resume-enhancing victory that, come March, erases all doubt about whether a team is worthy of a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

More importantly, the win over the Tar Heels provides the valley with a blast-from-the-past boost of pride.

It wasn't all that long ago that UNLV was the dominant team in college basketball, winning the 1990 national championship and making it to three Final Fours in five years.

While Southern Nevada's population and economy exploded through the 1990s and 2000s, the Rebels went into decline, derailed by NCAA issues and frequent coaching changes.

Over the past few years, those fortunes have been reversed. Clark County is hurting, but the Rebels are surging. Lon Kruger built a respectable, consistent winner before leaving for Oklahoma last year. First-year coach Dave Rice -- a reserve player on UNLV's national championship squad -- has taken a roster assembled by Mr. Kruger and rallied them anew around the program's tradition and potential.

Saturday's game was the first big test for the Rebels and Mr. Rice, and they aced it. The Tar Heels, whose heralded players attracted a couple of dozen NBA scouts, held a 42-38 halftime lead. UNLV scored the first 14 points of the second half and never looked back. North Carolina never mounted a serious charge after that.

It takes a win like this to get the attention of the sports media east of the Mississippi, especially the folks at ESPN, which is practically the television home of North Carolina, Duke and other East Coast powers. They couldn't have missed Saturday's game -- it was broadcast nationally on ESPN2. Their immediate response was favorable. UNLV entered the national rankings Monday, at No. 18 in The Associated Press poll and No. 20 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

The Rebels appear to have the right blend of experience, talent and leadership, with seniors Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield, juniors Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall and sophomores Mike Moser and Carlos Lopez. This season began with high expectations for the Rebels, yet the team already has managed to exceed many of them -- and it's only November. In a city of fickle fans and transplants, that should be enough to get the community behind them through the ups and downs, and into the seats of the Thomas & Mack.