Eric Musselman dominated UNLV over his final three seasons as UNR’s coach, winning seven of nine games — five by double figures.
But it’s the two losses that stand out in his mind, one on a 27-foot shot by Patrick McCaw to force overtime and another when Jovan Mooring scored 31 points while Wolf Pack standout Caleb Martin was out with an injury.
The pain of those defeats for Musselman didn’t overshadow UNR’s recent hold on the series, but they underscored how crushing it is for the team in this rivalry that’s on the losing side.
“We went into every game trying to destroy UNLV, not just beat them,” said Musselman, now in his first season at Arkansas. “It’s a rivalry. It’s real. The players feel it. The coaches feel it. The tension in the arena, you can feel it. I thought our guys got up emotionally for that game.”
The basketball and football rivalries between UNLV and UNR have turned upside down.
UNR is known as the state’s football school, but the Rebels have won four of the past seven meetings and own the Fremont Cannon. This after the Wolf Pack had won eight in a row.
UNLV is known as the state’s basketball school with a history that includes the 1990 national championship, but UNR made the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons while the Rebels watched from home.
The Rebels are up 60-30 in this series, and they so badly want to regain the upper hand. They get another shot at the Wolf Pack at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“It’s very important,” said UNLV sophomore point guard Marvin Coleman, who was born in Las Vegas and graduated from Foothill High School. “I was on the team last year that lost twice to them. It’s big for us to get this one.”
Both programs are under new coaches, with T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV and Steve Alford at UNR.
Alford is more than familiar with the Rebels, having coached one of their top rivals, New Mexico, from 2007-13.
Otzelberger received his first taste of the rivalry when UNLV visited UNR on Jan. 22 and lost 86-72. He agreed with Musselman about the atmosphere that night at Lawlor Events Center being different from most games.
“There was certainly more excitement or tension in the air,” Otzelberger said. “We know that’s going to be the same now that it’s on our turf.”
Otzelberger has more to be concerned about than just beating the Wolf Pack. He’s trying to build back UNLV to where it regularly competes for the Mountain West championship and plays in the NCAA Tournament.
Beating the Wolf Pack is a step in that process, even if the schools don’t necessarily recruit the same players for their coaching systems. But Otzelberger did admit that there have been head-to-head recruiting battles involving Las Vegas-area players, and he and his staff have made the effort to pursue those athletes early and aggressively.
One native Las Vegan who Otzelberger inherited is senior forward Nick Blair, who went to Bishop Gorman. He understands what beating the Wolf Pack would mean to the program and city.
“They got us once,” Blair said, “so we definitely owe them one, too.”