UNLV’s fortunes tied to defense

You knew it was going to be a good night for UNLV’s basketball team Tuesday when Curtis Terry made his second 3-pointer from Boulder City and Marcus Lawrence made one with his eyes open. You knew it was going to be a long night when it became obvious from countless whistles that the officiating crew was hoping to be noticed by some of the 46 people watching on the mtn.

You knew this wasn’t the UNLV that stumbled to a 1-1 start in Mountain West Conference play from the initial defensive stop, from the first time a Brigham Young guard tried to pass inside and instead saw nothing but harassing arms shielding his view.

Somewhere between being bounced by a weak Air Force side in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday and hosting the team most assume will rule the Mountain West this season, the Rebels remembered what earned them those 11 nonleague wins. UNLV won’t beat anyone the next few months if it can’t pressure the ball and contain penetration. It obviously can beat anyone in conference when it does.

This is a crazy part about basketball, that over a three-day stretch the same group of players can go from not being able to guard me off the dribble to waxing BYU 70-41 by completely taking a system-dictated offense out of anything it wants to do. BYU could barely make a second pass most first-half possessions, never mind run anything that might expose UNLV for its miniature self.

Part of it is youth with the Rebels. Part is adapting to new, more significant roles. A lot of it is focus and concentration and accepting the truth that each defensive possession should be valued like open road on Interstate 15.

UNLV didn’t do any of it when escaping at Colorado State and losing at Air Force, but did Tuesday at the Thomas & Mack Center in a manner that was as surprising as it was impressive.

“I think going on the road (in conference) was a bit of an eye-opener for some of our guys,” said Rebels coach Lon Kruger. “They learned you have to lock in with your focus even more. We weren’t pleased with what we did Saturday, but credit Air Force. They kicked our tails.

“This is not the typical BYU. We know that. We know what to expect when we go up there to play them. This kind of thing happens sometimes.”

Not often to this extent. This is BYU’s worst loss in 25 games to UNLV and the fewest points the Cougars have managed in any of them. BYU can be a nightmare to defend in transition, but that is on nights it doesn’t commit 19 turnovers or makes passing to a wing appear more difficult than advanced calculus.

Trent Plaisted is this league’s leading interior player, but the BYU center was less a factor than Fred Thompson is with voters today. Plaisted, all 6 feet 11 inches and 245 pounds of him, finished with three shots in 23 minutes. He was 1-for-10 on free throws, more than confirming his reputation as being dreadful from the line.

Credit for helping Plaisted disappear is due smaller and yet more resilient players in UNLV’s Joe Darger, Rene Rougeau and Matt Shaw, but what the Rebels were able to stop inside was a direct result of pressure outside. That’s where BYU shot 3-for-21 on 3s, where it was overmatched the first 20 minutes at an astounding level.

“I don’t want to say too much (about Plaisted), because we play them again and he’s very, very good,” Kruger said. “I’m really proud of the defensive effort. We played extremely hard and smart and won the battle for position.”

The outcome might shock some if it wasn’t the Mountain West, if it wasn’t a league where San Diego State loses to Northern Colorado one day and wins at New Mexico another, where Colorado State nearly beats UNLV and then falls to something called Panhandle State, where RPIs and strength-of-schedule ratings are not topics for positive discussion, where BYU has now shown enough warts to believe the conference tournament here in March is winnable for several teams.

“You look at some of the scores and it’s hard to understand what’s going on in the league,” Kruger said. “But that’s going to be the nature of this race.”

The longer his team remembers to defend, the longer it will remain part of it.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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