Rebels’ $13 million Mendenhall Center among best of kind

An hour after basketball practice ended Thursday, coach Dave Rice led UNLV’s players to a unique rally. It was time to strike up the band, let the cheerleaders loose, roll out the red carpet and listen to speeches delivered by important people in suits.

But not a word was spoken about the Rebels’ game against New Mexico on Saturday, one that figures prominently in the Mountain West Conference title chase.

It was an occasion to view the big picture.

A key part of the program’s future, the Mendenhall Center practice facility, was unveiled in a private celebration.

“This facility will be the best of its kind in the nation,” UNLV president Neal Smatresk said, and no one who toured the facility was eager to argue his statement.

After about five years of planning, and at a cost of approximately $13 million, the Rebels’ second home has become a reality. The three-level building, which is connected to Cox Pavilion and the Thomas & Mack Center, is a 35,000-square-foot showcase.

Smatresk, UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and former Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian were among those in attendance.

“Wow. Is this a great facility or what?” Livengood said.

Privately funded by donors, the center is named in honor of Robert and Paula Mendenhall, who committed $7 million to the construction.

The main lobby and Hall of Fame is named for Maury and Marcia Gallagher ($2 million), the two full practice courts are dedicated to the Paulos and Wortman families for donations of $1 million each, and the Academic/Video Center is dedicated to the Anstett family ($500,000).

Smatresk labeled it the “Runnin’ Rebel Donor All-Star team,” and said, “This team has 15 members and an incredible starting five.”

Comparable to state-of-the-art facilities at Duke and Kentucky, the Mendenhall Center more than impressed UNLV’s players, who were seeing the nearly finished product for the first time.

“All the elite programs are definitely going to have a facility of their own,” sophomore Mike Moser said. “It’s going to be big for us to have this, especially as a recruiting tool.

“That was one of the things I always looked at coming out of high school was who’s got the newest, coolest stuff where you could work out and improve your game.”

Rice said the Rebels could start practicing in the Mendenhall Center “in the next few weeks” after building inspections are completed. The women’s basketball and volleyball teams also will use the athletic training and weight rooms.

Joel Anthony, a former UNLV center who plays for the NBA’s Miami Heat, donated $250,000 for the weight room. Bill Boyd and Jackie Gaughan also pitched in $250,000 each.

“It’s an elite practice facility, and we’re trying to build an elite basketball program,” Rice said. “It’s a huge deal for us to have this. It gives us a better chance to compete at the level that we’re trying to get our program to. It makes a huge difference in recruiting.”

Rice was hired in April to replace former coach Lon Kruger, and Smatresk emphasized he was “grateful for the vision” Kruger had in planning the Mendenhall Center.

“For this team, this will be their home away from home,” Smatresk said. “They will study here, work here and practice here.”

Few details appeared to be overlooked. The practice courts have 12 baskets, the locker rooms have sensor lighting systems, the shower heads are 7 feet tall, the film room has luxury seating, and the entire building has Wi-Fi and a water-purifying system.

Rice said the facility already has helped with recruiting, and another high-profile prospect is interested.

“Coach Rice, I’m ready to sign up,” Sandoval said. “Where’s that letter of intent?”

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

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