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UNLV blows big chance

PROVO, Utah — On this side of the court, it is just the first of 16 conference games, just one defeat to an opponent that loses at home about as often as Tre’Von Willis thinks pass first, dribble second.

On this side, it is an opportunity lost the size of Nevada, a basketball game few expected UNLV to win and yet one it had every chance to grasp but couldn’t squeeze tight enough to take.

Pick which side you prefer.

There is merit to both.

Strange things happened here Wednesday evening, and I’m not talking about former Rebels player Joe Darger walking around wearing his UNLV jersey with red paint on both arms. The Rebels dropped their Mountain West Conference opener to Brigham Young 77-73 at the Marriott Center, which should leave a lingering sting for at least the next day.

Or at least until UNLV players watch tape of New Mexico.

"We had to play our best to win," UNLV guard Kendall Wallace said. "But we just blew it in the end."

It’s a brief but fair assessment.

Good teams can walk into this place and execute well enough to lead by six points with just less than six minutes remaining. Great ones finish it. Good teams can defend well enough in the halfcourt to gain a victory. Great ones also do but don’t allow 19 offensive rebounds.

UNLV was good enough to beat BYU but not great enough when it mattered most, which on this night meant a final three minutes of a tight game that saw the Rebels miss all three shot attempts and two free throws and commit two critical turnovers, one on an inbounds play out of a timeout.

On this side of the court, you have a UNLV team that held BYU to four fast-break points in a building the Cougars usually treat as their personal track facility, where scoring runs come in waves and opponents can be buried under the torrent in a blink.

On this side, you have a UNLV team that encountered a less-than-healthy Jimmer Fredette — the league’s leading scorer shot 2-for-10 in 25 laboring minutes — and still couldn’t find a way to fly home victorious.

Little things become big killers. If the Rebels didn’t completely hand the game back to BYU, they did everything in their power to point the Cougars toward a 1-0 league record.

You can’t win here with 15 turnovers while being outrebounded 44-37. You can’t forfeit that many possessions. You can’t play your heart out defensively the first half and hold BYU to 26.8 percent shooting but trail by one because you allow 14 offensive boards. Not if you want to win. Not if you want to be great on a night when BYU was about as vulnerable as it might be all conference season.

"It’s disappointing," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We did the things needed to put us in position … They hurt us on the boards all night. We gave them way too many second chances. You can’t give a good team that many looks."

We will see now a little of what UNLV is made of, the Rebels having to play at No. 15 New Mexico on Saturday against a team that opened conference play by losing at San Diego State. We will see how Kruger’s latest team bounces back from serious disappointment.

It will be a tall order to win in Albuquerque, but UNLV’s chances certainly would improve if more than two faces adopt more of an aggressive nature.

Say what you want about the junior Willis, who again proved as capable as he is exasperating with 24 points and seven turnovers, but he along with sophomore Oscar Bellfield often appear the only ones confident enough to take big shots.

Depth is a wonderful advantage to own, but you can’t cancel out its significance with just a few assertive players.

"We felt good about the fact that when they went on runs and the crowd got loud, we were still able to take the lead," Wallace said. "That says a lot about our team. We just couldn’t execute in the end."

On this side of the court, you have 40 minutes in a long season.

On this side, you have opportunity lost.

One the size of Nevada.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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