Lopez eager to aid Rebels' stretch drive

If Carlos Lopez could, he would ask for a mulligan and start his sophomore season over.

But there are no mulligans in basketball, and UNLV's 6-foot-11-inch forward from Findlay Prep by way of Puerto Rico is trying to get through a frustrating season plagued by injury and illness.

"I probably woke up on the wrong side of the bed at the start of this year," Lopez said with a laugh. "But it is what it is. I just have to stay positive. But it's not easy."

Lopez twice has been hampered by a sprained ankle and he had the flu last week, but said he's healthy now. From coach Dave Rice's perspective, Lopez's status is less about today's Mountain West Conference home game against Air Force than the conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center from March 8 to 10, when the Rebels (23-6, 7-4) face the possibility of playing three games in three days.

"We're going to need all our guys down the stretch," Rice said. "Carlos is critical for us. Not just for this season, but for the future.

"As a player, sometimes it's hard to see the big picture. But Carlos is going to be an important part of what we do moving forward."

Lopez admitted it's hard to see beyond today. He played only two minutes Wednesday in 21st-ranked UNLV's 75-58 win over Boise State and might not see much action against the Falcons (13-12, 3-8), who are 2-2 under interim coach Dave Pilipovich and led by athletic 6-6 junior guard Michael Lyons (15.6-point average).

"It's tough to look at the big picture when you're not playing," Lopez said. "It hasn't been the easiest thing. But I have great teammates, and the coaches are very supportive. Hopefully, they'll extend the bench when the tournament starts."

Rice could have played Lopez more against Boise State, but he didn't need to as the Rebels dominated. Plus, with senior center Brice Massamba playing the best basketball of his career, Rice wants to stay with the hot hand.

"I have no control over my minutes," Lopez said. "All I care is that we're winning. I'm going to keep working on my game and be ready when they need me, whether it's 20 or two minutes."

He probably will be needed, and Rice wants to make sure Lopez is 100 percent physically for the postseason.

"The hardest thing for me is finding minutes for all the guys," Rice said. "But Carlos has had a great attitude in the locker room, and when he's healthy, he's had some terrific games for us."

Lopez has scored in double figures six times this season, tying his career high with 14 points in a 80-63 win over New Mexico on Jan. 21. He's averaging 6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 12.5 minutes.

"I've been more aggressive this year, and I have my confidence," Lopez said. "I know I can score on anybody, and I've learned to trust my teammates more. I'm very comfortable out there. I'm much more poised, and I know what I need to do to get it done."

Lopez said he hopes the work he'll do this summer will ensure that he gets out of bed on the right side come October.

"I'm going to stay with (strength coach Jason) Kabo and put more weight and strength on," Lopez said. "I want to stay healthy so I don't go through this again."

■ NOTES -- Air Force is 1-17 in Las Vegas, and the Rebels have won nine straight in the series. ... Today is the annual "Kids Day" promotion, with $5 balcony tickets to those 12 and under. There will be a pregame festival in Cox Pavilion at 11 a.m. ... Pilipovich took over for Jeff Reynolds on Feb. 8, and one of his two wins was a 58-56 victory over then-No. 13 San Diego State on Feb. 18 at Clune Arena.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.