UNLV can’t afford to celebrate for long after shocking No. 1 UNC

LAS VEGAS — Welcome UNLV back under the microscope.

Under first-year coach Dave Rice, the Rebels improved to 7-0 on Saturday night by upsetting No. 1 North Carolina in the title game of the Las Vegas Invitational. The game was played just a couple of miles down the street from the UNLV campus in front of a crowd split almost dead even between the two sides.

UNLV had to play a near-perfect game and have a couple of other things go its way in order to pull off the upset, and that's just what happened. On a night where the Rebels out-hustled the Tar Heels to loose balls and simply looked like the hungrier team, they also canned 13 3-pointers and owned the defensive glass.

With what could arguably go down as the program's biggest win since claiming the 1990 NCAA crown under legendary former coach Jerry Tarkanian comes plenty of extras.

Of course, there was the court-rushing party that ensued at the Orleans Arena after the game, but UNLV will also now likely find itself back in both Top 25 polls come Monday morning and be expected to ride out a wave of momentum over the next couple of weeks.

Easier said than done.

UNLV's home court is packed up until Dec. 14 so that the Thomas & Mack Center can perform its annual duty of hosting the National Finals Rodeo. Meanwhile, with all eyes now on them, Rice's team embarks on a brutal stretch of non-conference games, many played away from Vegas.{YSP:MORE}

Wednesday, the team travels to face UC Santa Barbara, who knocked off UNLV at the Mack a year ago. Then comes a Sunday matinee at Wichita State. After a brief stop back at the Orleans early next week to take on Cal State San Marcos, UNLV plays at Wisconsin (Dec. 10), at home against UTEP (Dec. 14) and against Illinois at the United Center in Chicago (Dec. 17). Also not too far ahead are games against Cal (Dec. 23) and at Hawaii (Dec. 31).

"I'm sure these next three days in practice, coach will humble us right away," sophomore forward Mike Moser said afterwards. "I'm positive.

"We play a team on Wednesday that we lost to last year, so it'll be just as big a game as this one was for us, and we're really looking forward to that one."

Moser, a UCLA transfer who has been UNLV's unquestioned MVP through seven games, was a member of the team a year ago, but was merely in the background as a redshirt. Aside from averaging 15.1 points and 13.7 rebounds per game — he had 16 and 18, respectively, against UNC — his infectious personality and leadership has helped bring together a group of guys who last season had a tough time finding the same emotional note at times.

That was definitely the case in the 2010-11 season after the Rebels won three games in four days at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., over Thanksgiving weekend and vaulted themselves into the Top 25 polls. They had the look of a contender at 6-0 and would extend to 9-0 before finding the waters to be a bit choppy.

Four months later, after being blown off of the floor in their opening round NCAA tournament game against Illinois, that weekend in November, in hindsight, was the peak of their season. The wheels never necessarily came off of the bus, as UNLV finished 24-9, but it never looked like that team from November again.

Fast forward a year, and UNLV doesn't want that to be the case again.

The Rebels are not only a healthier team now than they were a year ago, but they're deeper, with Moser adding loads of versatility from his power forward post and Marquette transfer Reggie Smith set to give Rice a wealth of depth at point guard when he becomes eligible in mid-December.

As for the returners, Rice's uptempo style of offense that he brought with him from BYU has helped bring a few of UNLV's players to another level offensively.

Senior forward Chace Stanback is a prime example. Now at small forward after playing as a spot-up-shooting power forward under Lon Kruger, Stanback has some more creative freedom on offense. He showed plenty of what he can do Saturday with a career-high 28-point effort against the Tar Heels.

Though it was picked second by the Mountain West Conference media in the league's preseason poll behind New Mexico, right now, UNLV has the look of the conference's team to beat. Still, likely, the Rebels will stumble a time or two during their upcoming stretch leading into MWC play.

But this also has the look of a team far more prepared to avoid a mid-season swoon than it was a year ago, making UNLV less to fade very far from the national radar the rest of the way.

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