UNLV’s first half sublime, timely

Matt Shaw says it wasn’t about making a statement, because he has been part of a college basketball program for years now and understands the roller-coaster ride that is a 30-game regular season. He has seen how rhythm shooting can propel teams to unbelievable stretches of play, how it can demoralize even a ranked opponent.

“Large leads,” the UNLV junior said, “always help.”

This helps.

This helps a ton.

UNLV is tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference and deserves every bit of such placement, having outworked, outplayed and outclassed No. 12 Brigham Young in all phases of an 88-74 victory Saturday before an appreciative Thomas & Mack Center sellout of 18,557.

The game was over at 38-13. They played the final 27 minutes because they had to.

You can’t explain it. You certainly can’t bottle it. You can’t even see it coming. The Rebels — with everything to play for against a BYU team that will be favored in each of its remaining seven league games — executed in the first 20 minutes as well as they have all season. UNLV would’ve beaten not only anyone in the conference playing that way, it probably would have beaten anyone outside Lawrence, Kan., and Lexington, Ky.

You will hear a lot about how well the Rebels shot that first half — 64.5 percent from the field, 69.2 percent on 3s. They could have thrown assistant coach Steve Henson a pass and he would have made it from his sideline seat. That’s how good a flow they had offensively. That’s how contagious making shots became. That’s how the lead grew to 56-34 at intermission.

It’s a basketball filibuster. Once it gets rolling, once the first 3-pointer falls, it’s sometimes impossible to stop until the lead has grown to a silly margin.

But just as impressive was how difficult the Rebels made things on BYU. They made a team that hardly ever looks rattled appear confused from the start. They forced the league’s leading scorer (Jimmer Fredette) into a 4-for-15 shooting afternoon. They got loose balls. They limited the Cougars to countless one-shot trips.

UNLV outrebounded BYU 38-37.

Read that last part again. You can’t overstate its importance.

College basketball is crazy this way. UNLV can look so poorly in spots and lose at home to a Utah team that is slightly above average on its best night, then make 9 of 13 3-pointers in the first half to rip a BYU team that probably will win 30 or more games.

The truth: In the big picture of a Mountain West race, this game was far more important for UNLV than BYU, and the Rebels played like it.

“Guys stepped up and made the extra pass several times that led to getting pretty good looks,” coach Lon Kruger said. “BYU is terrific. They always play hard, which makes that first half even more satisfying. Now, we have another good team coming in here Wednesday.”

It’s there for UNLV. It’s possible. The Rebels have never won a regular-season conference title under Kruger, and it won’t be easy now, despite the terrific effort Saturday. They still must play at San Diego State and Utah. New Mexico, which sits in a three-way tie atop the standings after escaping the Aztecs in overtime Saturday, visits here Wednesday.

You can also argue BYU played its toughest remaining game with the loss here, given the Cougars host San Diego State and New Mexico. You can argue it would be an upset if the Cougars don’t win out.

But as games pass and three teams separate themselves from the others, the race for a league championship that always guarantees its winner an NCAA Tournament berth becomes clear. UNLV might not play again this season as it did in those first 20 minutes. You can’t explain it. You can’t bottle it.

No one saw it coming.

But it’s there for the Rebels. It’s possible.

“I think we all just wanted to come out and battle as hard as we could,” said UNLV guard Tre’Von Willis, who scored a career-high 33 points and strengthened the argument that he is elbow-to-elbow with Fredette as leading candidates for conference Player of the Year. “The crowd was great. You could really feel the electricity.”

It wasn’t about making a statement. It was about winning a game the Rebels had to have.

And they did, as impressively as anyone could have imagined.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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