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Moser, Rebels hope puzzling season ends on favorable note

Another soap-opera season is nearing the end, maybe sooner than was expected for UNLV, and Mike Moser is a character in the middle of the drama.

Moser’s run with the Rebels could be close to exhaustion. The junior forward is hoping for a strong finish to his college career, if this is it, while pondering if he should enter the NBA Draft.

“I’m definitely thinking about it. It’s a possibility,” he said. “You can see it in my play because I want to win so bad.”

Ignore what he recently posted on Twitter, where innocuous comments can be misconstrued. He has not checked out, he said, and the basketball team he leads is not unraveling at the wrong time.

Believe it or not? Tune in for the next episode to see the suspenseful conclusion of a perplexing season.

A wide-open and highly competitive Mountain West tournament will be the setting when third-seeded UNLV (23-8, 10-6) faces No. 6 Air Force (17-12, 8-8) in the quarterfinal round at noon today at the Thomas & Mack Center.

On the same floor in January, the Rebels were fortunate to beat the Falcons in overtime. In a February rematch, Air Force won in a blowout. In the rubber match in March, UNLV is a 10-point favorite.

Despite underachieving for most of the past four months, the Rebels are the favorites to win the tournament, according to the oddsmakers, who do crunch the numbers, watch the games and take their business seriously.

Moser contends he and his teammates are just as serious. It might not appear so from the outside looking in, especially to those who follow UNLV players on Twitter, but that view can be deceiving, too.

After Fresno State, a 14-point underdog, stunned the Rebels on their home floor Saturday, UNLV coach Dave Rice questioned the “immaturity” of his team, and senior guards Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall confirmed their coach’s critique.

Freshman guard Katin Reinhardt’s postgame tweets — “Gonna be thinking alot,” followed by “Taco bells pink lemonade fruitista is bomb” — drew an array of reactions from fans and media members.

Freshman forward Anthony Bennett tweeted, “the only thing I can really do is laugh” to his more than 9,400 followers.

Moser laughed loudly for about 15 seconds when reporters raised the tricky Twitter topic after Monday’s practice. But then he got serious and made an attempt at an explanation.

“You know how things can be so frustrating, it’s like you’ve just got to laugh at it? I feel like that was that game in a nutshell,” Moser said. “It was frustrating. We’ve got to move on.

“I feel like we’re more focused than people give us credit for. We’re definitely focused. Every game could be our last one from here on out in both tournaments. I’m definitely doing my part to make sure we’re focused.”

The Rebels are considered safely in the 68-team NCAA Tournament, in which they were eliminated in their first game last year after New Mexico knocked them out in an MW tournament semifinal.

“Last year, winning only one game in this tournament was pretty disappointing, and same thing with the NCAA Tournament,” Moser said.

Rice is far more concerned with how his team defends the Falcons’ perimeter shooters and back-door cutters than he is micromanaging Twitter posts. UNLV didn’t control Air Force’s top scorers, Michael Lyons and Mike Fitzgerald, in either game.

In the loss to Fresno State, the Rebels were disorganized offensively, with a lack of screening and ball movement. They fired 3-point attempts early in the shot clock and failed to make a field goal in the final 9½ minutes.

“We have our hands full,” Rice said.

Bennett, voted all-conference first team, took the wrap off his sore left shoulder and said he’s feeling better physically and not thinking about his NBA prospects. Rice said Bennett and Moser will start together at the forward spots for the first time since Jan. 24.

“If I start, I’ve got to produce,” Bennett said. “I’ve just got to put the injury aside. I’m going to go out there and play and not even worry about it.”

With a nod to Bennett, Moser said, “We’re going to need him down the stretch. He’s what makes us great. We’re OK without him, but we’re great with him.”

Moser has recovered from a dislocated right elbow suffered Dec. 9, but his absence seemed to undercut UNLV’s season, disrupting team chemistry and eliminating the trigger man of the transition offense.

“Mike brings a lot of experience, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Rice said. “I wasn’t sure that he would play for us again this year. It was a tough road for him getting back, and there were some struggles along the way, but he’s back to playing good basketball.”

Moser set off more Twitter drama Sunday by posting, “I’m outa here.” Some misinterpreted it as a leaving-for-the-NBA message, Moser said, based on feedback he observed. “I was leaving a certain place, and I was irritated,” he explained.

His three years with the Rebels, including a redshirt year after transferring from UCLA, are nearing an end. While a fourth season seems unlikely, he insisted the only object in the future he sees is a game against Air Force.

“You just focus on winning games. You could score points or do whatever, but if you don’t win games, you might have a limited amount of options anyway,” he said. “The name of the game is winning, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”

■ NOTES — Bennett and Marshall were named to the United States Basketball Writers Association’s All-District VIII team. Bennett also was selected to the Sporting News all-freshman team along with UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, a Bishop Gorman High product. … UNLV, which is 11-1 in the quarterfinals of the MW tournament, is 1-0 against Air Force in tournament play, winning a 2011 quarterfinal matchup.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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