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UNLV’s pressure covers up its flaws

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tulsa basketball has been alive and dribbling for 100 years now. Back in 1921, when it went by the name Kendall College, it won the AAU national title.

We know this because the present-day Golden Hurricane jogged onto a court to warm up here Thursday night wearing black T-shirts honoring that team.

Then they went out and played as if it had been that long since facing pressure.

UNLV treated its first journey away from home this season as a way to prove the notion that when you are facing a side with little backcourt depth and struggles mightily advancing the ball against quicker, better players, it’s a good idea to speed up the pace and force errant decisions.

Tulsa is good at errant decisions. It passes to the wrong colored jerseys a lot.

UNLV beat Tulsa 80-71 in a first-round game of the 76 Classic at a barren Anaheim Convention Center, where if not for 300 or so UNLV fans might have gotten by with an ushering staff of one.

I have to think those running the event are secretly hoping the Rebels advance to Sunday night’s championship. Thousands of empty seats never play well on national television, or weren’t you watching Thursday?

"Definitely, we played together and competed," UNLV guard Oscar Bellfield said. "That’s what we do — put pressure on the ball."

Basketball is funny when it comes to matchups. You can win one way and need to do so in a completely different manner not 24 hours later.

The Rebels after forcing 20 turnovers and scoring 28 points off those Tulsa mistakes will need to discover one of those different manners tonight.

Murray State is their semifinal opponent at 6:30, and the roster that returns more than half of its scoring from a 31-win team and one that lost to national runner-up Butler by two points in the NCAA Tournament is plenty quick and athletic enough to handle pressure.

The Racers opened by beating Stanford 55-52, and had they remembered the part about being able to shoot in the second half, it would have been a double-digit margin.

"Very, very impressed with Murray State," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Tough, physical, controls the pace, lots of guys who can score. A very tough team that knows how to play in tough situations, and we respect that.

"I thought Tulsa battled. We’re always going to stay after it and hopefully pick up some turnovers. That was the difference, especially ending the first half and starting the second."

UNLV ended the first 20 minutes on an 8-3 run and opened the final 20 on a 7-0 run. Pressure dictated both spurts.

The Rebels are going to do this to people some nights. It comes from having all those guards and wings. UNLV might find itself in big-time trouble once opposing long, athletic frontcourt players, but it beat Tulsa exactly how it should have, meaning pressing and trapping and creating havoc.

When it works, the post players need to be just average, which they were. Not to mention in foul trouble again.

It’s going to be this way for Quintrell Thomas, Brice Massamba and Carlos Lopez. It’s always going to be about which of the three shows good early and then hoping he can sustain success.

Thomas on Saturday against Wisconsin appeared lost from the outset, giving the Rebels nothing. He looked every bit a player who sat out last season after transferring from Kansas.

But he scored the team’s first four points and six of its first 11 Thursday. He was active. Engaged. Even knocked down a 12-foot jumper. He finished with eight points, two rebounds and four fouls in 11 minutes. Massamba fouled out with seven points and three rebounds in 13 minutes, and Lopez had six points and three boards in 15.

The trio had 12 fouls in 39 minutes. Ouch.

"We didn’t finish the way we would like," UNLV junior Chace Stanback said after the Rebels watched a 15-point lead with 9:24 left shrink to five with 2:43 remaining. "But (the win) started with our defense. We just let up a little late in the second half and can’t do that."

It’s a good event because in three games over four days — the Rebels play tonight and then Sunday — UNLV could face three completely different styles.

Tulsa wasn’t very deep or good; Murray State will be able to keep up and perhaps dictate tempo, and either Virginia Tech or Oklahoma State will challenge UNLV physically.

"After watching tape," Kruger said, "Tulsa was exactly what we thought they would be."

Which probably means this: one that handles pressure as Kendall College might have 89 years ago.

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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