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Progress apparent, but bigger tests await

Playtime is over for now. UNLV has won its first two basketball games to open what should be a highly successful season, and yet we have learned just a couple of things about the Rebels, neither of which will mean anything when Wisconsin visits Saturday.

A. UC Riverside and Southeastern Louisiana are good for padding one’s scoring average.

B. The Rebels have some highly knowledgeable fans.

The chant began with a little more than 15 minutes left Wednesday night, the one imploring UNLV players to make a 3-pointer, because when the scoreboard reads this much of a mismatch and the other coach keeps calling out the same play that his kids seem to have no idea how to run, you might as well focus on history.

Chace Stanback made that 3, and thank goodness he did, because the usher who let out a huge sigh of relief and wiped his brow and the woman in the third row who appeared as if she might faint had it not fallen never would have made it those final grueling minutes without one.

UNLV beat Southeastern Louisiana 92-56 at the Thomas & Mack Center, but nothing seemed to matter other than Stanback’s shot.

These weren’t small pockets of chants. These were large, loud ones.

The 3-pointer came with 7:26 left and kept alive the Rebels’ streak of having at least one in what has reached 774 straight games. The shot fell, and Stanback pointed to the student section as Bono might a sold-out stadium.

I have to believe that somewhere up there in those rafters among the announced crowd of 10,334, women and children cried for joy. Why the thousands remaining weren’t holding up cigarette lighters, I’ll never know.

“I told Chace we needed to make a 3-pointer, but I don’t think he knew why,” junior Brice Massamba said. “I think he knows why now.”

Added Stanback: “We were just trying to stay focused and in a good flow. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to knock it down.”

Here’s the most impressive thing about what was otherwise another of these disjointed, lopsided wins against an inferior nonconference opponent in which the only thing you worry about if you’re UNLV is someone getting hurt:

As the chants for a 3 raised in volume each time the Rebels gained possession, never did you see their players force offense. They didn’t get out of rhythm simply to find someone beyond the 3-point line and hope a shot fell so the woman in the third row could breathe again.

They drove over and over, realizing that a little thing like having a big size advantage still can lead to countless easy baskets.

UNLV attempted only eight 3s all evening and just three in the second half. Once the chants began, four minutes elapsed between attempts for the Rebels.

This is progress from last season.

This is a good sign.

This is an example of a better, smarter, savvier team than the one that lost the great Ali Farokhmanesh for one deadly second in March.

“The fans were certainly anxious for (a 3-pointer),” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “It was good to see Chace step up there. The streak is important to a lot of people and to our team as well. It would have been very disappointing if it didn’t continue. To get one down was great for everyone. (The game) was another opportunity to work on some things. We did some things better, but it showed we have a lot of work to do.”

The season’s first challenge awaits. Wisconsin is picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s best league this season and certainly its deepest.

This just in: It won’t be a 30-point game in the second half.

UNLV will return all-conference guard Tre’Von Willis to the court Saturday from what amounted to a four-game suspension for pleading no contest to misdemeanor battery, two of the games being meaningless exhibitions that coaches and administrators supported. It’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

Willis makes UNLV even better than the several glimpses two blowout wins to start have shown. Some players will have their minutes decreased with his presence, and yet the Rebels will be whole again.

“(Willis) is anxious to go,” Kruger said. “He has been waiting for a while, practicing well. He is healthy. It will be great to see him play.”

Playtime is over for now, and the streak remains alive.

Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Constanza … Stanback?!

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.

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