Dave Rice joked about how nice it was outside and what a shame it was that UNLV and Air Force had to play Saturday's game inside the Thomas & Mack Center.
Truth is, the Rebels' 68-58 victory resembled the sort of pickup game one might see at Sunset Park. Each team committed 21 turnovers -- a season high for UNLV -- but the Rebels built a 20-point lead in the first half and retained control in the second.
By the end of the day, the victory had turned into a thing of beauty, as No. 21 UNLV (24-6), New Mexico and San Diego State emerged tied for the Mountain West Conference lead, all at 8-4. The Lobos lost at Texas Christian 83-64, and the Aztecs won at home over Colorado State, 74-66.
"It's good to be back in first place," said Rice, UNLV's first-year coach. "One of our goals at the start of this season is to win the conference title. We understand how competitive a conference it is, and we also understand the huge challenge we face on Colorado State on Wednesday."
Five days ago, the Rebels' chances of winning the MWC regular-season title appeared remote. But New Mexico lost Tuesday at Colorado State and then Saturday, giving new life to UNLV, which closes with games Wednesday at Colorado State and Saturday against Wyoming at the Thomas & Mack.
To get back into the race, the Rebels had to weather a so-so performance that lifted their Thomas & Mack record to 15-0.
"It was a good team win," Rice said. "We made turnovers in transition trying to find other guys. But that's still too many turnovers."
After being extended to overtime before winning at Air Force 65-63 on Jan. 28, the Rebels changed their defensive strategy for the rematch. They aggressively attacked the Falcons and switched all the myriad screens Air Force sets in its half-court offense.
The ploy worked for the most part. Air Force (13-13, 3-9) struggled to find a rhythm, and Michael Lyons, the Falcons' leading scorer, was hard-pressed to finish with 18 points.
"They were more aggressive this time," said Lyons, who had only four points at halftime as UNLV led 37-23. "They pressured us a little more, but it wasn't anything special. We dug ourselves a hole in the first half."
Chace Stanback helped put Air Force in that hole, and he scored 21 points to pick up where he left off in Wednesday's 19-point performance against Boise State. He also had eight rebounds and three steals, and his balky right knee seems to be holding up as the senior winds down his collegiate career.
"My teammates are doing a great job getting me the ball when I'm open, and the shots are falling," Stanback said. "It's helping my confidence a lot watching those shots drop."
Anthony Marshall, who finished with 15 points, was one of several beneficiaries of Stanback's hot shooting.
"He opens the floor up for the rest of us," said Marshall, who added six rebounds, five assists and six turnovers. "It creates space for me to take it inside."
It also allowed forward Mike Moser to focus on rebounding. He had 11 rebounds and a career-high six steals. Moser took only seven shots and scored seven points, but with Stanback on target and Justin Hawkins scoring 11 off the bench, his offense wasn't missed.
The Rebels had a bonding moment with 7:01 to play, when Brice Massamba got tangled with the Falcons' Chase Kammerer under the Air Force basket and was assessed a technical foul after jawing with the Falcons' bench. Kammerer appeared to have tripped Massamba after a missed shot, and Massamba, usually mild-mannered, took exception.
Massamba said he thought Kammerer intentionally tripped him and that someone on the Falcons' bench -- he wouldn't say who -- made a derogatory remark which he would not repeat.
"The thing I was most proud of was the way our guys had Brice Massamba's back," Rice said. "I thought it was a great response."
Todd Fletcher's two technical free throws pulled Air Force to within 53-43, but UNLV answered with a clinching 7-0 run, delighting the crowd of 16,036.
Falcons junior guard Kyle Green, averaging 1.5 points, scored a career-high 17 off the bench, hitting 5 of 7 3-pointers.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.