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Defense continues to power Rebels

It led to a four-game winning streak to end the regular season and predictions that an NCAA Tournament berth was guaranteed before this Mountain West Conference Tournament commenced.

If there was any doubt before Thursday evening, it showed up again just to make certain Selection Sunday will offer good news for UNLV’s basketball team.

Valuable thing, defense.

It has this way of turning close games into laughers.

It has this way of exposing another’s greatest weakness.

I’m not sure what players Utah coach Jim Boylen has recruited for the coming seasons, but for his sake, let’s hope any incoming class includes a guard or two who can handle pressure and then make a shot when it appears the Utes might never do so again.

If not, the ultra-hyper Boylen is sure to crack for good, and he’s just too darn entertaining for anyone to wish that.

UNLV can begin to think things like NCAA seed and region and first-round opponent now, what with any question about receiving a berth answered with a 73-61 whipping of Utah in a tournament quarterfinal at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Rebels next play Brigham Young at 8:30 tonight.

For a while there Thursday, I wasn’t certain Utah could outscore the 45 points that BYU guard Jimmer Fredette put up earlier against Texas Christian.

Who am I kidding … for a while there, with the Rebels leading 21-8, I wasn’t sure the Utes could get 20.

Utah stayed close because I am fairly certain it shot 6,758 free throws, or perhaps just 36 as the final stat sheet suggests. But in between stoppages of play by officials who didn’t have dinner plans or maybe just wanted more face time on that unprecedented national television deal the conference owns, Utah had to prove it could make enough shots to remain close.

It never was going to happen. Utah’s best play all night was drive and pray for a whistle.

Most times, it worked.

But the Rebels also didn’t defend like this during those earlier two losses to the Utes, definitely not during a five-point defeat in Salt Lake City last month. They just didn’t.

There was a lapse the final 4:27 of the first half, when UNLV lost focus and a 13-point lead shrunk to four. But the point had been made not five minutes into the second half, with UNLV up 11 and Utah senior Luka Drca again trying to break free of pressure with his best elbow shiver to another’s chest, a move he seemed to master during his career.

The Utes ended shooting just 33 percent, including 0-for-9 on 3s after intermission. They also had 15 turnovers. They ran a lot, only not always with purpose. They didn’t control the boards as in those two previous wins against the Rebels, grabbing just 27 rebounds to 36 for UNLV. They had great looks that didn’t fall. They had tough looks that didn’t fall. They struggled to score.

"Our team went through droughts offensively, and we’ve had that happen this year too often," Boylen said. "We’ve had to recover from a 10-point (first-half) deficit and fight our way back. We’ve been doing that for 31 games.

"Some nights, we win, Some nights, we don’t … We are a weak team. We have to get physically stronger."

March can bring out the best in those role players who spent an entire season offering glimpses of good and bad and indifferent. Anthony Marshall proved this Thursday when the UNLV freshman guard went for 13 points, a career-high 12 rebounds and five assists.

He also played 34 minutes, six more than his season high, and was part of that perimeter group that at times again colored Utah almost desperate when trying to break pressure.

"(Marshall) was great," UNLV junior Tre’Von Willis said. "He played really well. Defended. Brought a lot of energy. We really wanted this game."

They will want tonight’s also, and you can be sure UNLV will have every ounce of BYU’s attention, the vision still fresh of a Rebels rout here Feb. 6 that wasn’t anywhere near as close as an 88-74 final.

The Cougars have lost seven straight to UNLV here. They just can’t seem to solve the Rebels on this floor. Both teams will play with a sense of urgency, but only for the sake of potentially improving where their NCAA seeds might land.

The Rebels can think that way now.

Valuable thing, defense.

It can make a bad offensive team such as Utah appear even worse than usual.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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