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Falcons’ deliberate pace figures to test UNLV’s patience

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s a game that could get ugly, warned UNLV junior Tre’Von Willis, and he didn’t say it because he’s anticipating a blowout.

Several teams put lopsided beatings on Air Force, the last-place team in the Mountain West Conference. But Willis is well aware the Rebels rarely make it look easy against the Falcons.

"It seems like they almost beat us every time," he said.

So it should come as no surprise if UNLV (21-7, 9-5) gets dragged into another struggle when it plays Air Force (9-17, 1-12) at 12:30 p.m. today at Clune Arena.

The Rebels will be without junior forward Matt Shaw, who sprained his left ankle on Feb. 17. Shaw said he was hoping to return today, but coach Lon Kruger said that won’t happen.

"When I first did it, I thought it would be OK in a couple days," Shaw said. "It’s worse than what I thought it would be. It swelled up pretty bad, and it’s pretty sore."

UNLV, off blowout victories over Texas Christian and Colorado State, wraps up the MWC regular season March 6 against Wyoming (9-18, 2-11) at the Thomas & Mack Center.

In the Ratings Percentage Index, Air Force (No. 238) and Wyoming (217) rank among the nation’s weakest teams. A loss to the Falcons could crush the Rebels’ chances of earning an NCAA Tournament at-large invitation.

"We’ve got to go there with the mentality that they’re trying to take something from us," Willis said.

As of Friday, in his "Bracketology" forecast on ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi slotted UNLV (No. 44 in the RPI) as a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region in Oklahoma City.

The Rebels, 8-3 on the road, survived a scare when they hosted Air Force on Jan. 26. UNLV pulled away late for a 60-50 win after trailing 24-21 at halftime.

The Falcons have scored in the 40s in four of their six games in February, with their top offensive output being 56 points. They can make basketball look as exciting as curling.

"Air Force does a great job of controlling the pace," Kruger said. "Every club that plays Air Force knows there’s going to be a different pace and a different mentality, if you will, to the game."

Kruger said even if the Rebels try to use full-court pressure to force a running game, the Falcons will dictate a slow-motion tempo by milking the shot clock with extreme patience.

"The most frustrating part is when you (defend) them for 35 seconds and they get the offensive rebound," Willis said. "You can try to force the tempo, but they do a great job of slowing it down every time."

The Falcons, who beat Wyoming in late January, have shown upset potential. They pushed 10th-ranked New Mexico to the wire last week before losing 59-56 in Albuquerque.

But Brigham Young, New Mexico, TCU and Utah rolled into Clune Arena and whipped Air Force by double digits.

Of the Falcons’ nine victories, more than half came against terrible teams — Charleston Southern, Dickinson State, North Carolina Central, Prairie View A&M and Western State.

UNLV needs to avoid joining that list.

Kruger is 1-4 at Clune Arena after finally winning there last year, 59-38. Willis shot 0-for-6 from the field and scored two points, but he had 11 assists. Kendall Wallace, who had to borrow shoes from former walk-on Scott Hoffman before the game, made five 3-pointers.

An Air Force fan, wearing nothing but a Speedo, danced behind the basket to distract the Rebels at the free-throw line.

"I remember that was fun," Willis said. "A guy was mooning us every time, if I remember right. He had a Speedo on. That was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that."

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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