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Lessons learned, sweetened by victory

EL PASO, TEXAS – It might be this way for a while, especially on the road. Ugly. Forgettable. Rhythmless.

It might be all messy and chaotic and without any sense of flow for long stretches.

But if there is a truth in sports all teams embrace, it’s that learning lessons off a win is far better than doing so off a loss.

UNLV’s basketball team will accept such and move on, having survived a last-second 3-point attempt to beat Texas-El Paso 62-60 on Monday evening, departing the Don Haskins Center with a seventh straight victory and yet certainly not one about which to brag.

"Learning those lessons and still not losing a game against a good team is a credit to our guys and the progress they’re making," UNLV coach Dave Rice said.

First things first. UTEP is not a good team. It might be tomorrow or a week or a month from now, but not against the Rebels. It has a very good coach in Tim Floyd. It’s not a good team today. It might beat Oregon here on Wednesday. It might get blown out.

It wasn’t good Monday, shooting 40 percent at home and turning the ball over 14 times.

The Miners wore uniforms that honored the school’s 1966 national championship squad of Texas Western, and there were several possessions where you would have thought UTEP players thought that meant they were supposed to play like it was 46 years ago.

It’s the UTEP way to grind, to be deliberate offensively and show more defenses than the Haskins Center has orange seats. (There are 12,222, for those interested.)

It’s the UTEP way to force you into ugly.

UNLV obliged defensively the final 17 minutes or so, allowing a 15-point lead to shrink to two when Konner Tucker took that 3 as time expired. It was a game that resembled a car in need of a tuneup. Lots of misfires. Lots of starting and stopping. Weird noises coming from the engine. Not much post defense to speak of from either side.

It happens when your rotation gets as muddled as UNLV’s now is. The Rebels played 10 bodies Monday, and among them was Khem Birch, the transfer center from Pittsburgh making his season debut. He played 14 minutes, showed some good, some bad, some rust.

"It’s different when all you have done is practice and now you’re back in a game," UNLV senior Anthony Marshall said. "You get tired a lot faster than you might think. New guys are coming in and out of the lineup now. It’s a luxury to add new pieces, but it does mess with the rotation. But you have to grind out every road game. It’s going to be even tougher in the Mountain West Conference."

Rice is also trying to now find time for point guard Daquan Cook (who played just one minute here) while dealing with the loss of injured forward Mike Moser for the next several weeks.

It might be this way for a while.

It’s not important for UNLV to be great today or have the rotation finalized or for Rice to know how each player will react under stress. It’s important to improve daily and work toward being a cohesive team once Mountain West play begins.

The Rebels are like a lot of good teams in that they struggle running away from people once building a double-digit lead. Elite teams can. Good ones have a tougher time burying opponents not named La Verne and Shirley.

For now, the starting lineup of Marshall, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Katin Reinhardt, Anthony Bennett and Quintrell Thomas will remain intact.

After that, depending on the opponent, the matchup, the situation at hand, Rice will look to his bench, substitute and hope things don’t get all messy and chaotic.

"It’s a difficult thing to find the right combinations with the way we have added and subtracted guys the last two to three weeks," Rice said. "That’s inevitable with adding a midyear guy (in Birch) and having (Moser) hurt, but our guys have done a great job accepting their roles and playing through things. We will continue to get better with our (rotation) as guys continue to improve. We’ll be much better with it.

"We have to do a better job of keeping our composure when challenged on the road. We lost our focus. Proud of the win, but we need to get better."

The Rebels are now 3-0 in road games, with each bringing its own set of lessons. It’s true: Better to learn them in victory than defeat.

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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