Offense still not running at full power

Let’s run. Sure.

Let’s take an 18-point lead in the second half with 6:36 remaining. Yeah, OK.

Then let’s hang on for dear life.

The Rebels defeated in-state rival UNR 71-67 in a close game in front of a big crowd of 14,827 at the Thomas & Mack Center on Monday night that didn’t need to be that close.

That it was is a credit to a UNR team that never said die, never gave in, or up, and, much more impressive than those tired cliches, never threw the ball away in the second half after committing 10 turnovers in the first half.

Two weeks ago, after the marketing campaign catchphrase of Let’s Run was reduced to Let’s Plod to a 58-50 victory over Division II Washburn in an exhibition game, first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice said the change of style was a work in progress. This new offense, predicated on pushing the ball up the court at every opportunity, might have to settle for pushing the ball at most opportunities, Rice said, and adhere to tried-and-true offensive sets at other times. A hybrid, he called it.

Like the Chevy Volt.

Well, in Monday’s first half, the Rebels burned serious carbon. In the second, they switched to electrical power and nearly gave the game away.

In the first half, UNLV did all the things that a team should do in playing transition basketball. The Rebels outrebounded the Wolf Pack, 24-19. They scored 13 fast-break points to UNR’s four. Playing for the first time with a full complement of scholarship players, they rotated eight fresh bodies and Brice Massamba, now the spitting image of former mixed martial artist Kimbo Slice, in and out of the game.

The Rebels were the fresher team. The UNLV bench outscored the UNR reserves, 16-0. It was 38-29 at halftime.

It would have been 38-9 had the Wolf Pack’s point guard Deonte Burton not scored 20 points to keep his team in it.

Burton added just eight more points to his total in the second half, when he appeared to be running on a portable generator, except for the 3-pointer he sank from Primm with 20 seconds left that trimmed UNLV’s lead to a tenuous 68-67.

The Rebels, on the other hand, appeared to be running not at all.

UNLV added just two more fast-break baskets to its first-half total, and one of those was an uncontested cherry-pick layup.

It seemed the Rebels might have expended too much energy in the first half when they were running and gunning and pushing the ball and scoring.

“Yeah, I think that was possible,” Rice said after maintaining his NCAA record-tying career coaching winning percentage of 1.000. “I think it’s a deal where we are still learning how to become a running team. Part of becoming a running team is developing the mental conditioning side of it. And another part of becoming a running team is throwing the ball inside to the post.

“But we are making progress. We are seeing glimpses of what we can be.”

Sometimes one must settle for glimpses of what the future might hold against the good teams, or at least teams that are projected as such.

UNR was beaten 68-46 by Missouri State, Charlie Spoonhour’s old school, on Friday, but the Wolf Pack are the preseason favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference. This is a team that probably will win a lot of games when it gets its act together.

The Rebels will play a lot more teams that are going to win a lot of games this season. ESPN.com has rated UNLV’s nonconference schedule a nine on a scale of 10, trailing only Duke and perhaps the Greyhound bus line, which always has a tough schedule.

But during the next week, UNLV will play home games against Canisius, Morgan State and Cal Poly, teams that aren’t expected to win a lot of games, at least not against high-caliber competition.

The light schedule should afford the Rebels lots of opportunity to work on “Let’s Run,” and Rebels fans a chance to familiarize themselves with the nicknames of the next three opponents.

The guess here is that the latter will turn out to be the tougher assignment.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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