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Lessons to be learned at heels of Cowboys

LARAMIE, Wyo.

What you are witnessing is Dave Rice’s prophecy coming true, and within it will be these sorts of close losses to an experienced team. But as the games and weeks and possessions pass, UNLV basketball improves.

It does more things well than not.

It evolves for the better.

The Rebels opened Mountain West play on the final evening of 2014 in Arena-Auditorium, where Wyoming emerged a 76-71 winner before 6,011 in a place it hasn’t lost in 11 tries this season.

The Cowboys will be incredibly difficult for any conference team to beat here, a side with the league’s best player in Larry Nance Jr. and the kind of savvy execution in critical times that four senior starters offer.

The Rebels learned a hard lesson when the ability to steal a game slips from one’s fingertips in the final minutes, that just a few plays you don’t make and the other guys do results in a five-point defeat.

On a day when the team bus froze and forced UNLV to make alternate travel arrangements for its shoot-around, the Rebels shot 55 percent and made 10-of-21 3s. They were as hot for stretches inside as it was blistering cold outside.

But they didn’t defend well enough to win. They were beat in transition a few crucial times. They never solved Nance (29 points on 11-of-17 shooting), which had something to do with foul trouble on UNLV’s part and a lot to do with Nance being gifted. UNLV players did things like essentially screening each other instead of bumping cutters in the lane off high-post looks, mistakes that resulted in easy Wyoming baskets.

The Rebels shot 59 percent and made 6-of-10 3s in the first 20 minutes and yet led just 37-33 at halftime.

Reason: They didn’t guard Wyoming the way you need to guard Wyoming, which had a lot to do with most UNLV players having, well, never guarded Wyoming.

That’s why the Cowboys had six dunks, including four in the first half out of half-court sets.

The Rebels were always a step too late, if they even knew the step had to be taken.

Of the 28 Wyoming baskets, 13 were dunks or layups.

UNLV is still extremely confused defensively too often.

“I was proud of our effort for our first conference road game,” Rice said. “But it took us way too long into the game to adjust. They have a good team and run good offense, but those were defensive execution errors. No doubt, we made a few too many of them to win.

“But we played hard and answered every single run they made. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to find a way to make one more play, but also understand teams are going to have to play awfully well to come in here and win. One or two more plays, and we win the game.”

You can see his prophecy, that UNLV will get better and better as the season progresses and its first-year players go through the grind of a conference schedule, manifesting itself.

It’s just probably happening in different ways than he imagined.

Rashad Vaughn (16 points) is the scorer everyone believed he would be, but Patrick McCaw and Jordan Cornish are freshman guards who also continue to improve and grasp the college game, or at least where they can make an impact in it. They’re hardly perfect, but make the sort of aggressive plays leading to mistakes that a coach will live with more times than not.

But if the Rebels are going to contend for a Mountain West title — and there is no reason to believe they can’t given the absence of a truly special team — freshman bigs Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan must play better.

Okonoboh can’t make foul trouble (he had four against Arizona and four against Wyoming) a habit, and Morgan is struggling mightily to contribute much of anything, totaling just 21 points and 17 rebounds in his past 88 minutes. He had one point and two rebounds in 12 minutes here.

The Rebels need another big to consistently produce beyond sophomore Chris Wood, who went all video game crazy Wednesday in scoring UNLV’s first 19 points and finishing with a career-best 29.

“We had too many defensive lapses in the second half,” Wood said. “I’m mad we let one get away but was impressed with how we played in the first half. Nance is a very good player. Hard to stop. He killed us. We have to play at a higher level. We’re a good team right now, but we can be much better if we stay focused.”

The Rebels have 17 conference games remaining, and should they bring this sort of energy and offensive execution to most, they will find themselves very much in the thick of a league race.

There isn’t a great team among the 11.

If his prophecy holds true, Rice’s side will win more than its share.

But this was a good start to conference for UNLV, despite the defeat.

Two things about this place remain pretty consistent: It’s deathly cold, and the Cowboys are usually money at home.

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 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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