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Rebels’ tallest hurdle ahead

With three months of the season in the rearview mirror, senior guard Curtis Terry has UNLV on schedule and pointed in the right direction.

“So far, we think we’ve put ourselves in a good position,” he said.

The Rebels’ goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament, and, as of today, they could expect to be one of the 65 teams included. But the next month is the most important one.

And UNLV’s next game, Saturday at Brigham Young, is the one that means the most in determining the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship.

The Cougars (19-5, 8-1 MWC) lead the race, and the Rebels (19-5, 8-2) can either fall off the pace or pull a half-game in front.

When the teams met Jan. 15 at the Thomas & Mack Center, Terry made five 3-pointers and scored 21 points to carry UNLV to a 70-41 blowout victory.

But BYU has reeled off seven straight victories and extended its home winning streak at the Marriott Center to 43 games, second best in the nation.

“We can’t worry about their winning streak or them trying to get revenge on us,” Terry said. “We’ve fared pretty well on the road this season, and we think we match up pretty well with them. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game to get it done.”

Terry is ready to go, and his status was in doubt three days ago. He woke up Tuesday with the flu and vomited during the afternoon but still started and played 35 minutes that evening to help UNLV defeat Air Force, 58-51.

“I was weak and didn’t have a lot of energy,” said Terry, who finished with eight points, five rebounds and five assists. “I was just miserable.”

The Cougars were feeling ill when they left Las Vegas last month, and there is no doubt they will be energized for the rematch.

Rebels coach Lon Kruger said little is changing in his game plan, which his team executed to near perfection while limiting BYU’s top three scorers — guard Lee Cummard, center Trent Plaisted and forward Jonathan Tavernari — to a combined 19 points.

“I thought defensively we were pretty consistent from start to finish,” Kruger said. “But we had stretches in that ballgame where we didn’t make shots, either.

“We have to go in there, try to dictate and do the things that we did in the first game, and try to do it even better. We always expect the opponent to take their best shot. We know it’s going to be a huge task.”

UNLV’s defense double-teamed and frustrated the 6-foot-11-inch Plaisted, who shot 2-for-3 from the field and 1-for-10 on free throws. Plaisted again will be defended primarily by the Rebels’ 6-7 Joe Darger.

“We’re definitely capable of beating them. On the road, it’s just tougher,” Darger said. “The refs tend to favor the home team a little bit sometimes, but we’ve just got to not worry about the refs.”

Another win against the Cougars could do a lot to build UNLV’s resume for the NCAA Tournament.

But a loss would not wreck the Rebels’ chances, especially because the conference’s automatic bid will be decided by the Mountain West tournament, held from March 12 to 15 in Las Vegas.

In this week’s Ratings Percentage Index, BYU ranks No. 38, one spot ahead of UNLV. In his latest “Bracketology” forecast on ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi has the Rebels as a No. 11 seed and one of the last four teams in the NCAA field.

“Our guys are fans just like anyone else. They talk about that term ‘bracketology’ and all that stuff,” Kruger said. “It’s good to be in position to be talked about. But it doesn’t mean much unless you finish it. Our whole focus is on finishing.”

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

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