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Rebels face another difficult test, would like to pass one

It’s always Dave Rice’s goal to set up a challenging nonconference schedule that includes intriguing games. The UNLV basketball coach is succeeding with his plan.

In November, the Rebels squared off against Stanford in New York, and next fall they head to Hawaii to participate in the Maui Invitational with Kansas and UCLA. A meeting with Duke in Las Vegas is two years away

And tonight, UNLV plays on the Strip for the first time in program history.

“These are the kind of games we need to play,” Rice said.

His next goal is to pass some of the tests. So far this season, the Rebels have failed miserably against Pacific-12 Conference opponents.

UNLV (7-2) faces 14th-ranked Utah (7-2) at 8:30 p.m. in the second game of the MGM Grand Showcase at the Grand Garden Arena. The Rebels are the only unranked team in the Coaches vs. Cancer event.

Lon Kruger, who preceded Rice as UNLV’s coach, leads No. 15 Oklahoma (7-2) against No. 16 Washington (9-0) at 6 p.m.

The Rebels, 8-point underdogs to the Utes, were routed 89-60 by Stanford on Nov. 21 and run off the court in the second half of a 77-55 loss at Arizona State on Dec. 3.

Rice is scheduling big games, but UNLV needs to prove it can win a few, too. Utah represents the Rebels’ third shot at a Pac-12 team, and No. 3 Arizona will be the fourth at the Thomas &Mack Center on Tuesday.

“Utah is a very good team. It’s just going to be a tough game, and we’re going to have to play really well to beat them,” senior point guard Cody Doolin said.

“It’s going to be a tough test for us, but I think we’ve gotten better since the last two times we’ve played Pac-12 teams. We’ll be better prepared than we were previously. These next couple weeks will really show us where we stand.”

Doolin’s last-second layup lifted UNLV to a 75-73 overtime victory over Portland on Wednesday, but the film sessions that followed did not cause Rice to pat his players on the back.

The Rebels lacked energy during a slow start and were on the wrong end of a 38-30 rebounding battle. The Utes, led by 6-foot-5-inch senior guard Delon Wright and 7-foot Jakob Poeltl, are bigger and more physical.

“This will be a huge test for us in terms of rebounding because of Utah’s size,” Rice said. “They just keep bringing in big guys. Rebounding is going to be a huge key for us. We all have to rebound better. I think the guards have to do a better job.”

Doolin said the team’s “rebounding was pretty poor against Portland,” but he did not blame forwards Chris Wood and Goodluck Okonoboh.

Freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, UNLV’s leading scorer, was the team’s top scorer (25) and rebounder (seven).

“I think the guards are a big part of why we’re not rebounding well,” Doolin said. “If we do get a clean rebound, I think one of our strengths is our transition offense. We have a lot of guys who can get out and run and finish.

“We’ve got to start better. It would be nice to play with the lead. We’ve just got to let it rip from the beginning. You just can’t come out and try to ease your way into the game. We have to change our mentality a little bit and come out aggressive.”

The Utes have been off for a week since a 63-60 loss to 10th-ranked Kansas at Kansas City, Mo. Utah wiped out a 21-point deficit before falling in the final minutes.

Wright, a rising NBA prospect, is the Utes’ top scorer at 16.2 points per game. He will face off against Vaughn for most of the night.

“Wright is as good a player as we’ll face all year,” Rice said.

Utah is aiming to erase bad memories, too. Its last trip to the MGM resulted in a 32-point loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament in March. The Rebels host the Wildcats next and hit the road to play the Jayhawks on Jan. 4, so the toughest stretch on their schedule is just beginning.

“It’s going to be a hell of a stretch of basketball,” Doolin said.

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

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