STOCKTON, Calif. — The annual break from home cooking known as National Finals Rodeo came to a conclusion here Saturday night for UNLV’s basketball team, in a city on the San Joaquin River and at an arena named for a family that isn’t so popular in San Diego.
What transpired at the Alex G. Spanos Center is what most presumed, a better UNLV side using runs to create just enough margin and then eventually beating Pacific 81-76 before a sparse 2,279.
It means the Rebels will return to Thomas & Mack Center as heavy favorites for games against Mississippi Valley State on Wednesday and Northern Colorado on Friday, meaning in all likelihood they will emerge from nonconference play with an 11-2 record.
Which would be as many victories as they had all last season.
“It’s encouraging to get a win when things aren’t going well,” UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said. “I’m glad the guys played so well for the first 24-25 minutes and gave us enough of a cushion so we could kind of orchestrate the end of the game.
“We didn’t want to have 19 turnovers doing it and we didn’t want to give up 13 offensive rebounds, but those are statistics we have the opportunity to clean up going forward without taking a loss.”
Pacific zoned UNLV to start and UNLV again was slow to execute and yet it again got better as time ticked on.
It seems to be a pattern now.
The Rebels shot 57.7 percent over the first 20 minutes to lead 45-31 at halftime, but winning your first true road game of a season rarely comes easily, and they would discover as much thereafter.
Pacific, a 5-7 team out of the West Coast Conference and coached by former NBA guard Damon Stoudamire, did well to rally late.
Some of it was about the Tigers being aggressive offensively — during one 13-4 run, five straight Pacific baskets were layups or dunks — and some of it was about the Rebels being sloppy and unfocused.
“The second half left a bad taste in our mouth,” said UNLV point guard Jordan Johnson. “Too many turnovers, and we didn’t guard their actions how we were supposed to. This can be a learning experience for us. We can go back and practice for what (Menzies) likes to call winning time.”
Different things have been asked of Johnson over the young season, and this night was more about him making shots. He scored a game-high 22 on 6-of-10 shooting, making 4-of-6 3s while adding seven rebounds in 37 minutes.
Brandon McCoy finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds for UNLV, while Shakur Juiston added 13 points with nine rebounds.
“(Johnson) gives you what you need as a senior — a fifth-year senior,” Menzies said. “He understands the ebbs and flows of the game, so he’s able to make the adjustments on the floor, especially when he’s away from the bench sometimes and I can’t get the message across. I thought he did a really good job from a leadership standpoint tonight.
“We made enough free throws (25-of-32) and did enough good things to get out of here with a victory.”
When it comes to that annual NFR road trip, little else matters.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.