UNLV kicks another pebble out of its shoe

Playing Air Force in basketball is a nuisance, sort of like going for a jog with a pebble in one’s shoe.

Come to think of it, playing Air Force in football, with its throwback triple-option offense, is sort of like that, too.

It’s difficult to look sharp against the Falcons, with their plodding style and their ball screens and their running hook shots. Playing Air Force is like walking around on crutches.

You could be wearing an Armani suit with a pocket square and Italian loafers, and it’s still hard to look good on crutches.

Dribble, dribble, dribble. Pass, pass, pass. That’s the Air Force way. Then, when the shot clock is showing :02 and paint is beginning to dry, it runs the back-door play. Or the picket fence.

It’s usually not that difficult to beat Air Force. Second lieutenants generally don’t jump and rebound that well. But when you beat the Falcons, you must beat them playing their way, not yours.

Last season, UNLV won a 49-42 tug-o’-war with Air Force at the Thomas & Mack Center. Two years ago, it was 60-50. Three years ago, it was 46-43.

On Saturday, it was 68-58, before another great turnout, of 16,036. UNLV now is 18-1 against Air Force at the T&M.

Considering the Rebels nearly scored 70 points, it was not a typical UNLV-Air Force game. The Rebels have scored 70 against the Falcons only once since the 2003-04 season. The reason it almost happened Saturday: UNLV stepped up its defense and even dictated the pace at times.

There were almost fisticuffs, too. That usually doesn’t happen at an Air Force vs. UNLV game — or, for that matter, at an Air Force vs. anybody game.

With 7:01 left and the Rebels ahead by 12, UNLV center Brice Massamba tripped over Air Force forward Chase Kammerer, and Kammerer was called for a foul. Massamba exchanged words with somebody on the Falcons’ bench, was assessed a technical foul and had to be restrained.

UNLV went on a 7-0 run after cooler heads had prevailed, and a lot of other cooler heads said that was what put the game away. But more astute observers thought the Rebels put the game away much earlier with their defense, like when it was 17-4, UNLV, with 10:53 left in the first half.

After struggling to a 65-63 overtime win in the teams’ first meeting this season in Colorado Springs, Colo., UNLV coach Dave Rice and his staff came up with a wrinkle. The Rebels played mostly guards and switched on every Falcons screen, instead of just on most of them.

Air Force, which had been averaging 12 turnovers, was harried into 21, the Falcons’ most since opening night when they beat Army, 87-71.

“There are a lot of ways to define ‘swagger,’ ” Rice said of a word that has been used a lot since Feb. 18, when the Rebels lost 65-45 at New Mexico, capping a brutal week in which they also lost in overtime at Texas Christian. “To me, to us, it’s our defensive ability, the way we come out to guard.”

Whereas the Rebels (24-6, 8-4 Mountain West) swaggered on defense, they staggered a lot on offense. UNLV also committed 21 turnovers, a season high — Rice attributed much of the sloppiness to overpassing in the open court — and scored only 20 baskets.

Air Force’s glacierlike attack produced 24 baskets. The Rebels were outscored from the field at home for the first time all year. By Air Force.

As expected, the Rebels outrebounded the smallish Falcons 40-30 despite playing a lot of guards. They also hit 19 of 25 free throws, which was unexpected, and might have been the difference in the game, as strange as that sounds.

Afterward, Rice said a team either gets better in February or it doesn’t, and he seems to be convinced the Rebels are getting better.

The power of positive thinking is not to be underestimated.

But objective thinkers in the house might look at these two home wins over Mountain West bottom feeders Air Force and Boise State on Wednesday the way the Yankees look at taking a weekend series from the Royals. Air Force and Boise ain’t the Red Sox.

On Wednesday, it’s back to Fenway, back to the road, where UNLV has alternated between suspect and awful. And Colorado State suddenly has become a green (and white) monster in Fort Collins, where the Rams have yet to lose a Mountain West game.

If the Rebels still are swaggering on Thursday, they will have accomplished something, especially if New Mexico keeps losing.

Not only will they be totally alive in the conference championship chase with only a home game against Wyoming to play, they finally will have gotten that pesky pebble out of their shoe.

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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