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Pressure defense trumps inferior foe

We are left with an obvious question this morning: How in the world did UNLV’s basketball team lose to Texas Christian last month?

You have to wonder after watching the Horned Frogs on Tuesday, after witnessing a team that made solving full-court pressure look tougher than your standard molecular biology class.

Funny. It’s just the type of opponent UNLV needed most.

A bad one.

Consecutive overtime losses can test a team’s psyche like the longest of shooting slumps, and what defeats to San Diego State and New Mexico showed more than anything were areas that could hinder UNLV’s progress toward a third straight NCAA Tournament berth.

What a 71-57 victory against TCU showed was that quality pressure defense almost always trumps inferior skill.

“Those losses last week were very frustrating,” UNLV senior guard Mareceo Rutledge said. “It felt good to know that if we came out and played our game and pressured like we can, we could dominate a game.”

It helped that the other guys had 26 turnovers, that they threw nearly as many passes to Thomas & Mack Center fans as teammates, that the youth-level principle about not dribbling too much against the press didn’t make TCU’s pregame talking points.

It’s not as if the Rebels coveted possession. They had 21 turnovers, but eight came over the first eight minutes when they trailed 17-7. They then had two over the next 22.

“A much-needed win,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “We opened horribly, but obviously our pressure was a factor. We stayed aggressive and kept attacking.”

Winning creates confidence, no matter how it is accomplished or how substandard the opponent. Shooting nearly 48 percent on 3s also raises one’s belief. When they weren’t playing loose with the ball, the Rebels were making plays for one another and hitting open shots. It’s a good combination.

TCU in January might have been thought an upper-tier Mountain West Conference team, but five straight losses has rightly defined it as more pretender than contender.

At worst, the Rebels took care of business at home Tuesday and beat a team they should have now and in Fort Worth. You could say TCU forward Zvonko Buljan had a career night against the Rebels then, but they should have overcome it. That loss looks even worse after this win.

But what we didn’t know then that we do today is how UNLV will make a run at another NCAA berth. By going small. Kruger has decided his best chance at winning is by using an old formula, which is to say the team’s big men have been relegated to spectators.

How many problems it might produce against good teams is anyone’s guess, but know this: You don’t recruit junior-college bigs to play six minutes in a season’s 24th game, which is how many Darris Santee got Tuesday, which is four more than he got at New Mexico on Saturday.

Brice Massamba’s minutes also have decreased to the point he has logged 10 total the past four games, far fewer than the freshman enjoyed early in a season that saw UNLV lose its most heralded post player — Beas Hamga — to transfer in December.

Hamga wasn’t close to being as good as the hype that surrounded him, but his departure left Santee and Massamba as the combined post presence. It hasn’t worked out that way. They haven’t improved enough, because if they had, they would be playing a lot more.

UNLV has won this way before. A lot, in fact. More than signing any outstanding post players during his tenure, Kruger has done a terrific job coaching up the flawed ones he has had (see NBA players Joel Anthony and Louis Amundson).

Maybe that will happen one day with Santee and Massamba, the latter in just his first college season and perhaps a summer in the weight room away from seriously contributing.

But for now, it’s back to combating a lack of size with intense pressure. Back to answering one big matchup problem by offering opponents their own.

“The losses to San Diego State and New Mexico were heartbreaking,” said UNLV senior Joe Darger, who has returned to his undersized role of defending the post. “We really needed to come out and get this one. Now, we need to keep moving forward and get ready for Colorado State.”

Another bad team.

Another potential confidence builder.

Another that somehow beat UNLV in January.

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

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