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Win in good ol’ fashioned rock fight good enough for Rebels

There’s no such thing as a bad win. Absolutely not in March.

UNLV’s basketball team struggled mightily to advance in the Mountain West tournament Wednesday against Air Force, but that will happen against the Falcons.

They’ll muck things up in the most stingiest of ways, and the Rebels almost fell deep into the trap where elimination lurked. Stared it in the face.

They eventually won 78-70 in overtime in a play-in round game and now face Boise State in the quarterfinals Thursday night.

UNLV has to be a lot better to stand a chance. Has to be better at most everything.

A rock fight

“Really proud of the guys for fighting and staying with it,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “They clearly understood our concern as a staff about how a game with Air Force can turn into a rock fight.”

Rock fights aren’t pretty.

Here’s the deal: The Falcons are different from everyone in conference. Different offense. Different defense. You just don’t play against it. Can’t really have a scout team run the same stuff with any sort of success. Can’t really cut and move and screen with the same precision. Can’t be nearly as patient.

Which is why things appear so aesthetically unpleasing to the eye. So ugly at times.

This was the UNLV that hung its proverbial hat on defense, even though there were nights this season when it couldn’t guard air. But it defended Air Force into 39 percent shooting from the field and 17 turnovers, of which the Rebels turned into 21 points.

Stars also emerge this time of year, and the Rebels right now aren’t playing on without senior EJ Harkless. He would score a career-high 35 points and somewhat will UNLV to victory.

“Just staying together,” Harkless said. “That’s the biggest thing for us. Just staying together and being able to look each other in the eyes and go out there and play really hard. The outcome will be in our favor if we did that.”

It nearly wasn’t.

Also what you need to win a game like this: a kid like Victor Iwuakor.

He played 22 minutes and scored just three points, but also had five blocks. Inconsistent in his play this season, the senior made arguably the game’s biggest play when stripping the ball underneath the Air Force basket with four seconds remaining in regulation in a tie game.

“(Iwuakor) came in and had an impact,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said. “Give him credit for that. … It’s March. It’s never pretty. It’s never perfect.”

It was the second time in two weeks UNLV went to the wire with Air Force, winning the previous matchup 54-53 here in a game that was less pleasing than this one. But the Rebels got it done then and again Wednesday, making enough plays and riding Harkless to a 19th victory on the season.

It only gets tougher.

UNLV has lost seven straight to Boise State, including being swept this season by scores of 84-66 and 73-69. Winning four games in four days to secure an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament — which is the challenge for UNLV — is like making that tough hike in and around Red Rock in dress shoes with no socks.

Off their feet

So here is Kruger’s plan: to get his team as much rest and rehab as possible before things tip off at 6 p.m. To keep his players off their feet until it’s go-time against the Broncos.

“It will be all film, small group meetings, and kind of like cramming for a test in some sense,” he said. “Just getting them as physically ready as possible in 24 hours would be a priority over anything else.”

They didn’t pass their first exam with flying colors. It was a grind to advance.

But they did and it’s March.

No such thing as a bad win.

Or a pretty rock fight.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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