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Rebels breathe, and play a lot better in first game under Simon

One of the first movements Todd Simon made Tuesday night was to swing his right arm in a circle as if coaching third base and trying to score a runner from first on a double in the gap.

He swung it hard and fast.

Even hopped a few times while doing so.

It was either that, or the guy at one point was a hell of a freestyle swimmer.

Two days after their coach was fired midway through his fourth season, having lost six of their previous eight games and sitting at 0-3 to begin Mountain West play, UNLV basketball players were implored by their new leader to run.

To enjoy playing.

To breathe and believe.

The Rebels were an impressive winner in Simon’s first game as UNLV’s interim coach, taking their first lead at 5-4 and never relinquishing it in an 86-74 victory over New Mexico before an announced gathering of 11,377 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“It has been a whirlwind,” Simon said. “A few days ago, this was the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve been an assistant for a long time, and I felt if I was ever given the chance — now, never, later — that I wanted to be prepared. Believe it or not, it was calming. The game was calming. The practices were calming. The basketball part was calming.

“It’s something you dream about and love. It was fun.”

The timing of Dave Rice’s firing Sunday was debated locally more than whether it was justified, but in that moment there shouldn’t have been a UNLV player or coach who didn’t feel some level of blame. What happened, what delivered UNLV to this unenviable place of chasing several others in a bad league, was a team effort.

Perhaps the fact it played so soon after was a good thing, and if you are ever going to get extreme effort and desire out of a group, it’s going to be the first game after a coach being fired and another making his debut.

One of the best things Simon did in the short time from being handed the interim tag and opposing a team that had begun conference play 3-0 by outscoring opponents by an average of 15 points was to simplify the message.

Regaining one’s confidence is ridiculously important when nerves are frayed. The Rebels were an emotional mess returning from losses at Colorado State and Wyoming. They played tight last week. They played fearful of making mistakes and, as usually happens in such cases, made a boatload of them.

So when Simon kept waving his arms and clapping for good plays and continuing to encourage even after bad ones, it became pretty clear: He just wanted them to play, because no matter how good you might be individually, it’s a heck of a chore to execute when you’re carrying around the weight of the world on your shoulders.

“Coach Simon told us the first 10 seconds of every shot clock was ours, to push the ball and run and attack and score as fast as we can,” freshman Stephen Zimmerman Jr. said. “I think that allowed us to push tempo and definitely helped us. One thing we talked about as a team was that this is a business, but we need to still have fun playing.”

Zimmerman has never played better this season, finishing with 15 points and 15 rebounds and four blocks in 32 minutes. They were tough rebounds, many of them difficult to corral. He hasn’t played with this sort of edge often. He has been more soft than not.

But that wasn’t the case against New Mexico, and when you can offer an inside presence like him and have Patrick McCaw (18 points) rediscover some scoring and only turn the ball over seven times compared with 57 the previous three games, having fun becomes a whole lot easier.

It’s one game, but a really important one. The Rebels are certainly good enough to contend in conference, but they had to at some point regain at least a little swagger to begin the process.

It seems they have.

“I was really proud of their effort and focus on the things we talked about, controlling what you can control, sharing the ball, playing the way we wanted to play,” Simon said. “We played with great pace and got into running lanes and got to the right spot and trusted each other. I’m really, really proud we got results doing it the right way.

“The guys embraced the points of emphasis we talked about the last few days. We have a lot of season ahead of us, and we know we’re this close.”

The emotion of 48 hours melted away for 40 minutes Tuesday, when we learned a few things about Todd Simon. He might button his suit jacket more than your average Men’s Wearhouse salesman and the guy sure can get that right arm going when he wants his team to run.

That, and he did a terrific job simplifying the message in the most difficult of times.

To enjoy playing.

To breathe and believe.

Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney

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