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As ankle heals, Stanback puts best foot forward

They always want to know. The coach. The player. The fan. The usher. The janitor. The opponent.

What type of ankle sprain?

Low? Not so bad.

High? Not so good.

"It’s real difficult," Chace Stanback said. "I’m still not 100 percent. I’m at about 85. But I just play through it. I have to keep strong."

He waited and waited and waited some more, but Stanback finally is showing himself and others why UNLV basketball coaches had big plans for him upon his transfer from UCLA.

Why they thought he could make the kind of difference that beats a team the Rebels hadn’t beaten much of late.

Stanback probably isn’t aware that of UNLV’s past 37 games against Mountain West Conference teams at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebels have dropped just three.

All to San Diego State.

What the sophomore should realize is that if 85 percent soon becomes 100 and his game continues to grow in confidence, UNLV’s opportunity to win a league title grows tremendously.

Tre’Von Willis is a stat-sheet stuffer who needs help most nights, and Stanback offered the most Wednesday. He scored a career-high 18 points in a 76-66 win against San Diego State, which still gives UNLV fits when it comes to being more athletic and aggressive and physical around the basket.

But unlike last season, when the Aztecs swept three games against the Rebels and, given individual matchups, probably would have swept 10 had they played that many, UNLV had more than enough this time.

Sprained ankles are more bothersome than when batteries on the remote burn out. You can go an entire season and have one never completely heal. Stanback, a kid who hadn’t played much since his senior year in high school, tweaked his as practice began in October.

As a freshman on a Final Four team at UCLA, Stanback averaged 5.8 minutes in 25 games. He averaged what you average in garbage time of blowouts. He didn’t play a second in 14 others.

Then he sat out last season.

Then he rolled the ankle.

"His (injury) was more significant than people realized," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "It came at a critical time, those first three weeks of practice. Then, you’re not as explosive as you want to be when you first come back. I really think only in the last few weeks does he seem to have that bounce and athletic ability back. We need him to continue doing this and to stay aggressive."

Stanback spent most nights early this season making plays but not producing many points. He had four assists against UNR and four against Southern Illinois. He had nine rebounds against Pittsburg State and nine against Louisville. He had at least three steals in four of the team’s first seven games and four Wednesday.

But for the Rebels to be better than good, someone has to join Willis (23 points Wednesday) as a consistent scorer. Oscar Bellfield has in many games. Stanback is another who can play the role.

He has in the past two, going for 14 points and nine rebounds in a win at New Mexico on Saturday. He made 7 of 12 shots against San Diego State. His 15-foot baseline jumper out of a timeout with 2:50 remaining pushed the lead to 67-62, and the Aztecs never got closer.

Bellfield has been UNLV’s second best player most nights. In the past two games, critical conference wins, Stanback has been.

The Rebels still have issues. They get pushed around against teams such as San Diego State. They were outscored 44-22 in the paint and outrebounded 44-35. They block out air, and more explosive athletes soar above them. When you consider the soft way UNLV often finishes at the rim, I’m not sure anyone other than freshman Anthony Marshall can dunk without a running start of 10 feet.

But you can balance that ledger against better athletes when a San Diego State has 20 turnovers to your 10 and it misses 12 free throws to your four and when a player such as Stanback continues to find his rhythm.

"We felt bad for Chace with the high ankle sprain and redshirting last year, all that time he was missing and getting a step behind everyone else," Willis said. "His shot wasn’t falling that much at first, but we just kept telling him to stay with it and stay with it. Hard work pays off.

"If he plays like he did tonight, we’re a tough team to beat."

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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