LAS VEGAS -- The two buzzwords first appeared in UNLV head coach Dave Rice's opening comments to the media following the Rebels' hard-fought semifinal victory over Colorado State here Saturday night. They popped up again in the latter portion of the press conference when asked about tomorrow's opponent, New Mexico, and a third time in one of the final questions, this one about the Lobos' guards.
The phrases "tough" and "together" -- especially the former -- have not always been associated with the Rebels over the past two seasons, but they were written on the locker room chalkboard before this game. Rice knew his team would be put to the test by a senior-heavy, physical Rams team employing its normal methods of basketball mayhem, and the Rebels showed both of those qualities along with strong doses of talent and depth to wear down and eventually break the tiring Rams.
Caveats definitely apply as the Rebels are a different animal at home and, despite the mountain-logo neutral floor installed for this event, UNLV is still playing this conference tournament in its own building. So in order to get properly tested, the Rebels needed to draw the right opponents, and perhaps no one in the league is more well-suited to lean on a team's stress points than Colorado State with its relentless rebounding. With all due respect to Boise State, this UNLV team at this stage of the season needed this kind of a game more than a finesse 3-point festival, and the Rebels' fight over 40 minutes is a good sign.
"I think you should take away the fact that we have gotten a lot tougher as the season's gone along, and the guys who come in off the bench for us are tough," Rice said. "... You have to be tough to hang in there when you haven't played the previous game and be ready to play against a team as good as that team."
As much as Anthony Bennett's first-half excellence and Katin Reinhardt's career-best 21 points were large factors in the Rebels' victory, the game was decided in large part because the Rebels have a lot of very capable bodies coming off the bench. Colorado State, especially with hobbled point guard Dorian Green, basically went six players deep. Center Colton Iverson, who had a huge game with 24 points and 16 rebounds, had very little left in his tank down the stretch, and the lack of secondary perimeter options was very clear with Green on the bench.
Iverson's fatigue was due to UNLV not only having Bennett and Mike Moser to start things off, but league defensive player of the year Khem Birch and two other legitimate bigs in Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez-Sosa. With 25 available frontcourt fouls, Rice was able to manage the first-half foul trouble and win the game without any of his frontcourt players even logging 30 minutes. Iverson had 37 himself.
The irony of this is it came one game after Rice went back to his initial starting frontcourt this season and seemed to have decided on a rotation that made the most sense. UNLV's need for rotation definition and tightening has been a legitimate question all season, but on this night, the depth of talent Rice has collected is why the Rebels will play in the final tomorrow.
"This is the reason you bring in all the guys and then you work and then you hope that they'll hang in there with you," Rice said. "At a time when a lot of kids are transferring and not willing to wait for an opportunity, I don't think there's any better example than tonight."
A primary identity forged on Wednesday. A reminder of its riches on Friday. Who knows what aspect of UNLV will present itself against New Mexico on Saturday, but the Rebels will be able to lean both on the lessons learned tonight and on the depth they believe they can trust. This is the sixth matchup between these two teams in the last 14 months. There are no secrets. Rice and Co. know just how good the Lobos are, but they also are seeing just how good they can be, especially when they show like they did tonight.
"If we stay tough and together," Rice said, "we got a chance."