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Shooting woes can’t become habit

The season’s first 10 games suggest this was the exception and not the rule, that UNLV’s basketball team on Wednesday simply had one of those nights.

That a team ranked third nationally in shooting with five regulars making more than 50 percent of their attempts won’t often look as inept as 29 percent did against UC Santa Barbara.

That’s the hope for UNLV.

Here’s the reality: The Rebels lost 68-62 and deserved it as much as any game they have dropped in some time. They have played three consecutive halves now beginning at Louisville on Saturday where anyone who watched immediately would question and perhaps snicker at UNLV’s Top 25 ranking.

Which probably disappeared Wednesday.

"We just have to fight more," senior guard Tre’Von Willis said. "The coaches told us not to come in expecting anything, and that’s the way it seemed like we played. When you shoot as we did tonight, you have to be tougher and fight more for things. It’s my job to get guys going. I just hate that we had to lose to realize we needed to fight more."

The Rebels have been a terrific shooting team. They were awful Wednesday. They have been prone to fast and impressive starts. They trailed by 10 midway through the first half. They entered shooting 40 percent on 3s and yet attempting just a little over 15. They took 29 on Wednesday.

Meaning, everything that defined them to this point pretty much was thrown out the Thomas & Mack Center doors at tip-off.

Put it this way: UNLV was a 16-point favorite, shot twice as many free throws than UCSB, outrebounded the Gauchos by seven and collected 24 offensive boards to six for the visitors, and had 17 steals and eight fewer turnovers.

And lost.

At home.

As the nation’s No. 22 team.

This also is what happens when a good and incredibly underrated coach nationally — Bob Williams — has 10 days to prepare his scout. UCSB has beaten UNLV three straight, and it would have been beyond shameful had the Gauchos lost this one.

If they received the benefit of one call from the men in striped shirts, it might have been only one. UCSB on Wednesday was the perfect example of a college road team needing to outscore its opponent by 12 to win by six.

It was, well, silly at times watching the whistles go UNLV’s way. Williams is not the screaming type. If so, the man would have lost his voice by halftime.

"We don’t cry about calls," said James Nunnally, who led UCSB with 23 points. "We don’t expect to get any calls against a bigger conference team."

It’s a good thing.

The funny thing is, UNLV did a much better job attacking zone against UCSB than it did in losing at Louisville. The Rebels moved more and found more creases and got the ball into the middle more often.

They created enough good looks.

They just couldn’t make any.

When you know things are bad: UNLV in the second half made just two 2-point baskets. Of its 32 attempts following intermission, 21 were from 3-point range.

"They just played better than we did," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger, whose team missed nearly as many free throws (14) as UCSB attempted (17). "Give them credit. We have to get back to work. We have to be less careless with the ball. We need to get back and start making progress."

It won’t be until next week before it’s known how much UNLV can make in a short time. Southern Utah visits Saturday, and, with apologies to the Thunderbirds, UNLV could shoot as it did Wednesday and probably still win.

That won’t be the case on Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo., against sixth-ranked Kansas State, a team that handled the Rebels last year at the Orleans Arena.

It’s no secret that UNLV these past two games has been exposed in parts, especially on offense. Losing at Louisville might draw a glance or two. Losing at home to UCSB should open everyone’s eyes.

It could very well have been just one of those nights.

It could be a deeper issue.

"Any time you lose, you feel awful," Kruger said. "Losing at home feels even worse. We had great energy the last two days of practice. The guys were ready to go and had a lot of respect for Santa Barbara. Obviously, we didn’t do the things we wanted to do."

They haven’t for three straight halves.

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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