There’s a lot to like about this season’s UNLV basketball team, and not just because the Rebels beat 16th-ranked Louisville, not once but twice, on Saturday.
Sure, it would be easy to celebrate the spirited resolve and resilience the Rebels demonstrated in their 76-71 victory over the Cardinals at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s difficult to say which “win-within-a-win” was more impressive: UNLV running out to a 19-point lead on its thoroughbred opponent early in the second half, or the Rebels refusing to have their will snapped when Louisville rallied to tie the score at 62 with just more than five minutes left.
But reading between the stat lines, neither would have been possible without something extremely difficult to quantify: selflessness.
On offense and defense.
From the first whistle on the first day of practice, coaches continually preach how important it is for players to surrender their individual egos for the benefit of “team,” how significant that extra pass can be to getting off an open shot or how sliding over to help on defense can result in a forced turnover or pressured shot by the opponent.
In a game that held early season significance Saturday as UNLV begins to compile its NCAA Tournament resume, the Rebels demonstrated that coach Lon Kruger’s pulpit work has not fallen on deaf ears.
This clearly is a team with one tightly intertwined, laser-like focus.
“You can look at all the good players we have on this team,” junior guard Derrick Jasper said, “but our strength is that we know we have to be unselfish to get to where we want to be.
“It’s been that way since the first day of practice and every day after.”
When you consider that almost every player on a team at UNLV’s level has experienced ego-feeding moments of individual glory, how difficult it must be for a coach to erase such pre-established mindsets and replace them with what is a 14-man version of The Three Musketeers, as in “All for one, and one for all.”
But there they collectively were Saturday, making the extra pass on offense — averaging 3.7 exchanges on every successful field-goal attempt, including one deliberate, 13-pass halfcourt set with 2:23 to play that resulted in a basket by Oscar Bellfield.
It was only when the Rebels got out of defensive sync and hiccupped — OK, surrendering a 19-point lead is more of a loud, long, post-Thanksgiving dinner belch — that their offensive play became a tad too individualistic. Hey, no one’s perfect, and UNLV certainly wasn’t for a nine-minute stretch.
When it mattered most, though, with the score tied, five minutes to play and feeling the thoroughbreds’ hot breath on their necks, the Rebels pulled back together and re-established the unselfish focus, offensively and defensively, that will trump individual athleticism more often than not.
“There’s just been a team-first attitude, because that’s the basis of everything,” Kruger explained. “Our guys understand that. … They understand the value of thinking about each other.”
Or as Bellfield, who was the singular statistical beneficiary of the Rebels’ late selfless play with eight points in the closing minutes, said, “It’s all about chemistry. We start it in practice — working together, working the extra passes — and then transfer it to the game.”
All of which has made unselfish play second nature to a team that, without question, is proving itself a step ahead of most teams, including nationally ranked Louisville.
No doubt, the Rebels will make their share of mistakes this season, as all teams do, and as they did for an unhealthy stretch in the second half Saturday.
But on those occasions, all they have to do to refocus their game is to look around and remember that they have each other’s backs.
Contact sports editor Joe Hawk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2912.