If Rebels shed dunce caps, they have chance against Aztecs

The origin dates to a precursor in “Letters addressed to R.H. Horne” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1839.

The line was later listed as “The third time is lucky.”

UNLV’s basketball team doesn’t need such fortune tonight.

But it better be a whole lot smarter than it was Thursday.

The Rebels have themselves a third matchup with the Mountain West’s regular-season champion, and whether they are charmed enough to finally beat No. 8-ranked San Diego State will largely depend on how intelligent they are between the ears.

And when faced with all that pressure.

UNLV advanced to a conference tournament semifinal by surviving a capable but depleted Wyoming side 71-67 at the Thomas &Mack Center.

The Rebels led by 10 with 1:06 left.

It was a one-point game 43 seconds later.

“We don’t make things very easy on ourselves,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We’re happy to still be playing. Going into the week, we knew it was a new season for us. We understand the challenge. San Diego State is a terrific team. I’ve always said that Friday night in the Mountain West Tournament is an electric atmosphere.

“We’re excited to be part of it.”

He’s also excited about this: You figure the Aztecs won’t switch between a triangle-and-two and 2-3 zone defense that takes UNLV players a good 30 minutes to properly identify and attack.

Larry Shyatt is a wonderful coach. Wyoming was missing its best player (Larry Nance Jr., knee) and still managed to confuse the Rebels for long stretches. If Nance plays, I’m not so sure we aren’t breaking down UNLV’s chances today for a berth in the CollegeInsider.com tournament.

The Cowboys had UNLV running man offense when it should have been running zone early and totally perplexed where shots should come against a triangle-and-two over those first 30 or so minutes.

UNLV assistant coach Heath Schroyer also wore a tie.

It was a crazy scene, man.

The best triangle-and-two I have seen at the college level was when Utah upset Arizona in an Elite Eight game in 1998.

The Rebels of Thursday might have scored 40 points against those Utes. Total.

It won’t be so confusing tonight, but it’s going to be much tougher to win than it was Thursday.

San Diego State rallied to beat New Mexico on Saturday for the regular-season title by playing a 1-3-1 zone in the final 11:39, something that beforehand would have been given similar odds to a blizzard tearing the roof off of Viejas Arena at halftime. New Mexico looked even worse against the 1-3-1 than UNLV did to start against Wyoming.

Yeah. That dumbfounded.

I assume the Aztecs will zone some tonight, and you have to believe Rice will show the 2-3 zone his team played for 40 minutes at Air Force and yet didn’t in losing to San Diego State by nine last week at the Thomas &Mack.

But it’s still going to come down to which team can limit second chances.

San Diego State played one of its best games of the season in thumping Utah State by 34 points in a quarterfinal, the largest margin of victory in conference tournament history and the fewest points scored by the Aggies (39) in two decades.

It will take something for San Diego State to repeat such a performance.

It will take the Rebels being at least even on the boards to win.

In two losses to the Aztecs this season, UNLV has been outrebounded 89-73. The Aztecs have finished better than the Rebels in both games and made the plays that win in the final minutes.

“I think San Diego State is the best offensive rebounding team in the country,” Rice said. “They are so aggressive attacking the basket.”

His team is whole again, having welcomed Roscoe Smith (concussion) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (suspension) back to the fold Thursday. The two combined for 40 points off the bench and will need to play with a similar energy and execution tonight.

It’s on Rice to adjust, because you figure a San Diego State team that is 28-3 and certain of a high NCAA Tournament seed will feel comfortable playing the style that helped them reach this point.

There is no pressure on the Aztecs. No stress.

UNLV is the more desperate side, perhaps the hungrier side, the side that has known for months that its NCAA fate rests squarely on winning this event.

It needs to be the tougher side.

It can definitely win by being the smarter side.

Third time is the charm?

Liz Browning once thought so.

Wonder if she ever penned about recognizing a triangle-and-two.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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