Escape beats alternative every time

You place an X on the positive side of the ledger and move on. Watch the tape, break down all the mistakes, try to learn from them, take another deep breath and begin preparing for the next game. There’s not much else to do after such an escape.

It’s not some tired cliche when people say conference play in college basketball is a different beast. It’s true. The scouting becomes more intense. Each possession is valued more. Teams know your strengths and weaknesses and tendencies far better than nonleague opponents.

And when they scrap and dive and play as hard as New Mexico did against UNLV on Saturday night, what you did against Arizona or Louisville or whoever came before means nothing.

But this does: Rebels 60, Lobos 58.

There’s a formula people use to gauge how well a team is progressing during conference play. A home win earns no points. A home loss gets minus-1. A road win is worth plus-1.

By that measure, UNLV is fortunate beyond its next missed free throw in the final minute to be dead-even following its Mountain West opener before an announced house of 14,189 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

How are this many seats empty for a team that had won seven straight coming in, just beat a Top 25 opponent on the road and was opening play in a conference it has been picked to win?

You can’t get a more ideal time than 7:30 on a Saturday night. How can so many sections in the upper bowl be unoccupied in a city that supposedly covets its college basketball team as another might a professional outfit?

Do that many Chargers fans in Las Vegas not own a DVR?

"It’s good to get the win, but we need to play a lot better than that, especially in front of a home crowd," UNLV senior Rene Rougeau said. "New Mexico played their hearts out, but we allowed them to think they could win the game. We don’t want things to be that close. We need to get back to work."

Winning likely is going to be like this most nights for the Rebels, meaning not as spotless as two years ago and for major parts of last season. But they don’t grade for cleanliness if your team has more points when the final buzzer sounds.

Stopping dribble penetration and defending the post continue to be problems for UNLV.

Resiliency doesn’t.

The Rebels found a way to win yet again in a disorderly way, much as they have over a 13-2 record. Their leading scorer — Wink Adams — played for the first time since injuring an abdominal muscle and looked the rusty part, not making any of six shot attempts in 18 minutes. Joe Darger had nine points and 10 rebounds, but the senior still appears absent for long stretches, having shot 18-for-63 over the last eight games.

UNLV made a New Mexico forward with one career double-double — senior Daniel Faris — look like an all-conference player with 19 points in 31 minutes, many of his baskets inside again the result of not containing the dribble outside.

Human nature is pretty easy to dissect in these times. At Louisville on Wednesday, the Rebels had one of their finest nonconference wins in 15 years. Some level of letdown was expected.

But more than the Rebels not being focused, the Lobos (9-6, 0-1) played well enough to win. They play as hard as their coach — Steve Alford — complains to officials, which is pretty much every possession. He never stops. It’s sort of amusing.

But that the Lobos had an opportunity to win with a final 3-point attempt is as much about how they grinded for 40 minutes as how UNLV nearly blew a five-point lead with less than 20 seconds remaining while missing five free throws in the final 37 seconds.

"The game didn’t have a lot of flow to it, obviously," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We would have liked to have played better, but credit New Mexico with some of that. Guys play good games all year and come back and play well the next time. (Coming off the Louisville victory) can’t be used as an excuse.

"We have 15 regular-season games left and have to treat each one as special. To think you’re not going to be ready to play one of them. … That can’t happen."

Conference play is a process. A long, difficult one.

You put an X on the positive side of the ledger after a game like this and move on, because escapes beat the alternative every time.

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

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