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UNLV basketball needs to be tougher, but not like Lady Rebels

OK, so it wasn’t as if a Utah State women’s basketball coach got in the face of Kathy Olivier and called Cox Pavilion a cage, or that Olivier referred to the Aggies with a disparaging term, was told to bust off and one of the Lady Rebels defended her coach by throwing a cross to the face of an opposing player.

Well, other than the part about a punch being thrown …

The fight that led to the UNLV women receiving more national news than they have in years, decades, longer than anyone can remember for much of anything, wasn’t a made-for-movie occurrence.

Norman Dale wasn’t involved and, sadly, nobody was wearing a Hickory uniform.

But for all the consequences likely to come from the Lady Rebels engaging in a fight during the third quarter of an overtime win against Utah State on Saturday — that UNLV players had not been warned much earlier by their coaches about leaving the bench during such a dust-up is beyond ridiculous — so too was an implicit message sent to the men’s program.

Simply, develop more toughness.

That doesn’t mean acting the part of Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman on Michael Jordan. Contesting a path to the basket is fine. Doing so with the intent to draw blood isn’t. More than a defensive strategy to limit the effectiveness of the world’s greatest player, the Jordan Rules were an open invitation for hand-to-hand-and-head-and-all-other-body-parts combat.

That was then. Now is different.

Toughness in basketball is more mental than physical, and while UNLV’s women let their emotions get the best of them in reacting to a hard foul, the men need to discover more of an inner strength to overcome difficult stretches during games.

The women crossed a line.

The men need to at least stand near it every once in a while.

This isn’t to suggest the Rebels show up in Albuquerque on Tuesday for a game against New Mexico wearing boxing gloves, or that UNLV’s gameplan begin and end with jabs and hooks and uppercuts.

Floyd Mayweather Jr., loves basketball, but it doesn’t mean those who play it should compete as if him in the ring.

Besides, that would mean a whole lot of defensive stances, which is hardly a strength for UNLV right now.

“I’m more about physicality within the rules of play,” Rebels coach Marvin Menzies said. “Fighting though fatigue instead of just hugging someone all night and saying, ‘My guy isn’t going to score.’

“I’m not an advocate of hurting an opposing player. I don’t believe in it. You can’t shy away from contact. Basketball is a physical game. But you can develop toughness and strength and physicality with the right mental approach. Those things can be taught if a kid is willing to do things differently.”

You can’t condone fighting or intentionally undercutting an opponent and risk ruining another’s career. That’s not toughness. It’s stupidity.

The toughest teams don’t succumb, and yet also don’t swing.

They don’t back down, and yet also don’t square up.

The toughest teams might provoke, but are smart enough to walk away. They might trade a bump with an opponent and get shoved, but will react with a laugh as a whistle is aimed in the other direction instead of throwing a punch.

The toughest teams don’t let up when falling behind on the scoreboard. They play hard for 40 minutes and however many possessions are needed to succeed. They get back on defense when their lungs and legs insist it isn’t possible.

Talent is another T word. The Rebels don’t have a surplus of it and need to recruit a lot more of it.

But they can get tougher, starting now.

“We just can’t play like front-runners,” Menzies said. “You can’t only be engaged when things are going your way. You have to have the mentality when things aren’t going your way that you say and do the right things. We need to be better at that.”

You had two extremes play out for UNLV basketball on Saturday, one in Las Vegas and another in snowy Logan, Utah.

When you get past the fact those new players to the women’s team hadn’t been instructed by Olivier not to leave the bench area during a fight — a detail most programs cover after showing kids where to change for practice and eat meals — a reaction occurred that, while perhaps showing the propensity to stand up for a teammate, went too far.

On the men’s side, a close score down the stretch became a blowout win for Utah State when the fatigued Rebels failed to play through some tough possessions with enough mental toughness.

One team at UNLV crossed the line. Another needs to flirt with it more.

It’s a fine one, for sure.

The really good teams know how to straddle it.

Contact columnist Ed Graney 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. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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