Mission accomplished: 3-0 Rebels head to Maui

Week One of UNLV’s schedule is in the books and head coach Dave Rice couldn’t be happier.

Guard Patrick McCaw scored a career-high 24 points and freshman forward Derrick Jones added 19 points — including some more crowd-pleasing dunks — as UNLV improved to 3-0 with an 84-64 victory over Southern Utah on Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“Mission accomplished,” Rice said. “Got a win tonight against an experienced, good team. It was difficult at times but one of the things we emphasized going into this game was turnovers, and very proud of the fact we only turned the ball over eight times. Assist-to-turnover ratio tonight was very, very good – 18 assists, eight turnovers.”

Senior point guard Jerome Seagears scored 11 points and dished off six assists and freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman had his second straight double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Runnin’ Rebels, who forced 16 turnovers and used their superior height advantage to finish with a 44-20 edge in points in the paint.

Okay, so defeating mid-level teams from the Big West (Cal Poly) and Big Sky (Southern Utah) and Division II New Mexico Highlands won’t be nothing to thump your chest about come March. But the Runnin’ Rebels avoided a Monmouth-type slip-up – sorry UCLA – and showed improvement while blending in a lot of new faces.

“We’ve got a long way to go but very pleased with where we’re going,” Rice said.

Now the Rebels head to Hawaii for Maui Jim Maui Invitational with a 3-0 record and plenty of confidence as they prepare to test themselves against the big boys starting with a Monday night (8:30 p.m., ESPN2) contest with Steve Alford’s Bruins (1-1), who host a veteran Pepperdine squad tonight at Pauley Pavilion.

“Huge challenge coming up for us on Monday,” Rice admitted. “Three-and-0 going to Maui and three days to practice for a very challenging game on national TV.”

Southern Utah (1-1), which lost its opener at Pac-12 heavyweight Utah, 82-71, on Friday, kept it close early, trailing just 22-21 after back-to-back 3-pointers by junior guard Trey Kennedy, a product of Bishop Gorman High School.

But UNLV’s press and pressure defense kicked in after that. The Rebels, who forced 12 first half turnovers, then went on an 18-4 run with McCaw and Jones leading the way, combining for 11 points and two steals en route to a 45-31 halftime edge.

“Talked about it all year long: depth and personnel is what this is all about,” Rice said. “I thought midway through the first half our press took its toll. We forced some turnovers and got the game going how we wanted it to go and never trailed.”

The Thunderbirds closed to within six points on three different occasions early in the second half, the final time on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard James McGee with 12:56 remaining. But Jones scored eight consecutive points during an 11-0 run to put UNLV back up by 17, 63-46, and the Rebels pulled away to lead by as many as 23 points down the stretch.

“Obviously Derrick Jones makes great things happen every time he goes in there,” Rice said. “I just through (McCaw’s) leadership on the floor, his timely plays, we’re really the difference in the game.”

Kennedy and senior guard Travon Langston each scored 10 points to lead Southern Utah.

UNLV leaves early Friday morning for Maui. The winner of Monday night’s contest will face the winner of the Kansas-Chaminade game on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN with the losers squaring off at 1:30 on ESPN2. Indiana, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and St. John’s are on the other side of the bracket. The title game is Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“We know the challenge that is coming,” Rice said. “Maui is always a great field and this is probably as good of field as there’s been in Maui in a long, long time. There’s a lot of national championships in that field, historic programs, tradition, and we’re excited to be there.”

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