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January 5, 2014

Rebels in familiar territory

Winners of seven in a row headed into Saturday night's Mountain West Conference home opener against Air Force, it felt like UNLV was playing its best basketball of the season and had put itself in prime position for a great start to league play.

And then, like usual this time of year, the Runnin' Rebels found a way to avoid getting off to the start they need to pursue a conference crown.

It may seem inconceivable but the Falcons actually accomplished a feat this evening that UNLV hasn't managed to do in eight seasons - start off league play with a 2-0 record.

I know, it doesn't seem all that impressive, but for the Rebels, this was an ideal position this week with Air Force and UNR coming to the Thomas & Mack Center.

If you think it has been a while since UNLV went 2-0, it's hard to fathom just how long it has been since the Rebels started conference action with a 3-0 mark. That hasn't occurred since the 1998-99 campaign. You know, the one and only season that Shawn Marion suited up in Rebel gear.

But, once again, UNLV will be chasing the leaders from the outset. Unfortunately, with a record of 10-5 and no attention grabbing wins on their resume, the Rebels are looking at steep hill to climb to get in contention for a possible bid into the NCAA Tournament in March.

After four straight trips to the "Big Dance", UNLV may need the dreaded "four days in March" to reach its ultimate goal this season. That is going to be a hard pill for many fans to swallow as the season moves along.

The reason?

It's pretty simple, really. UNLV, after 15 games, is still struggling to find any consistency in late game situations. There's no cohesion or purpose once the contest becomes tight and the clock is ticking away.

Tonight, Bryce Dejean-Jones, despite having a career-high in points, stepped up to the free throw line and missed two freebies with the Rebels trailing by one with 20 seconds remaining on the clock.

Had he made even one, it would've put the pressure back on Air Force and allowed the loud Mack crowd make a difference on that final possession. However, Dejean-Jones was unable to complete the play and failed to deliver in a critical spot for the Rebels.

This has happened repeatedly this season and there doesn't seem like a remedy is coming anytime soon. UNLV just can't get over the hump in late game scenarios. It happened against Arizona State. It happened against Illinois. It happened on the road at Arizona. And then, it happened against Air Force.

There needs to be a solution to what is holding the Rebels back from succeeding in these spots. The players are talented enough. The team runs decent sets for much of the game. Something just doesn't feel right whenever the game is on the line.

Maybe it's because nobody has stepped up and actually succeeded in that position yet. Once someone knocks down a game-winner or ties the score in crunch time, then, maybe UNLV will be able to move on from a psychological standpoint. Until then, whenever the game is close, the doubt of being able to pull off a victory will probably be in the back of the players' minds.

Whatever the case, UNLV is back in a familiar position - looking up at the leaders in the MWC. With games coming up against UNR and on the road at New Mexico and San Diego State, things could get worse before they get better.

Unless, someone figures out how to right this ship. It just better happen sooner than later.



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