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Versatile Stanback flourishes

The more I watch Chace Stanback play basketball, the more I wonder what Ben Howland was thinking.

Yep. The system at UCLA fit Stanback like a toddler’s T-shirt stretched over John Madden’s head.

Yep. Stanback would discover more playing time and shots elsewhere.

Yep. He probably would have suffocated from frustration remaining in Howland’s world of first-one-to-50-always-should-be-declared-the-winner.

But you have to think Howland might wonder now why he didn’t push just a tad more in trying to keep Stanback from transferring in 2008.

You have to think it following a game such as the one UNLV won Saturday.

NCAA Tournament resumes can be built in November, and the Rebels added a positive to theirs by taking out Wisconsin 68-65 at the Thomas & Mack Center, using the second-half shooting of Stanback and key defensive plays late to top a side ranked 25th in the coach’s poll and one that assuredly will make its 13th straight NCAA field.

Stanback totaled a career-high 25 points, and his jumper with 54 seconds remaining gave UNLV the lead for good. He made 4 of 7 3-pointers, and any day now, opposing coaches are going to realize he likes that look from the left corner.

Stanback addressed several questions afterward but didn’t say much, perhaps his way of purposefully challenging coach Lon Kruger for the team lead in embracing such insipid ways.

Say this for the Rebels — their opponents must have the cleanest bulletin boards in America.

But through three games, Stanback’s play has done all the talking he needs. If a strong midrange game indeed is one of basketball’s dying skills, Stanback never received the memo. His is not an easy game to defend.

“Until they line up against him, I really don’t know if people realize how good (Stanback) is,” UNLV point guard Oscar Bellfield said. “He gives 100 percent every game. It’s just confidence. He has a lot of confidence in himself right now, and we have a lot of confidence in him. We know he’s going to make big shots. He was huge today. We just kept feeding him.”

It was the type of game you see in the second round of the NCAAs, one in which UNLV did a more-than-decent job holding up physically against a Big Ten opponent.

The Rebels still got beat on the boards and allowed 14 offensive rebounds to the Badgers, who, while not as athletic as some teams UNLV will face this season, have a roster that knows about things like positioning and effort.

Wisconsin has basketball players in the truest sense. It’s not an easy matchup today, next month or in March.

UNLV had to play well to win and did.

“A great opponent early in the season to check ourselves against,” Kruger said. “Both teams played really hard. (Stanback) has really been shooting the ball well for us. We played a really good team nose-to-nose for 40 minutes.”

What Kruger did was make a decision that led to the game’s most important play. He went small out of a timeout with eight seconds remaining, his team up one and Wisconsin inbounding the ball under its own basket.

Kruger inserted Justin Hawkins and Derrick Jasper for Stanback and Brice Massamba because he liked the look better against Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer.

It paid off when Hawkins stole the inbounds pass, was fouled and made the two biggest free throws of his young career with 6.7 seconds left.

Like the midrange game Stanback owns, Hawkins has a skill lost on many of today’s players. He is a defensive pest on the ball. Has been since high school. Plays such as the one he made in the final seconds might not shine on a stat sheet, but they win big games.

“Big steal, big two free throws,” Stanback said. “(Hawkins) has been playing great for us.

“Wisconsin is a great team that we knew would play tough until the very end. It got pretty physical. We knew it would be physical. They have a big team. It felt like a March Madness game.”

It had that level of intensity at times. It had a lot of it the final 2:07, when neither team managed a lead of more than three points.

UNLV put a little meat on its early NCAA resume Saturday, and Stanback’s play was a big reason.

Yep. UCLA’s loss has turned out to be UNLV’s gain.

Far more than perhaps either team thought.

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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