CEDAR CITY, Utah — Most of a 10-point lead had vanished over the previous five minutes and UNLV’s basketball team stared at a 66-65 lead with 8:40 remaining against Southern Utah on Wednesday night.
Which means for this particular Rebels team, it was the perfect test.
Life away from home in college basketball is often a difficult and treacherous place, so the fact UNLV departed Centrum Arena an 89-81 winner signifies an important and impressive step for Marvin Menzies’ team and how it might react to similar situations as the season progresses.
“You know, it’s funny,” Menzies said. “I was probably more concerned about the game than I think the players were. I know how tough it is on the road. So to have success here is hopefully something we can refer back to. Regardless of whether the ball goes in or you get a stop, you need to do the right things.
“It’s details that make a difference on the road. When we needed them in this game, we did them.”
Todd Simon now leads Southern Utah, the former UNLV interim coach who guided the Rebels the past few months of the 2015-16 season after the firing of Dave Rice in January, and the announced gathering of 4,249 Wednesday in a place that seats 4,800 obviously knew of the close connection between benches.
It was loud at all the right times.
Simon can definitely build a Big Sky Conference contender from this town and arena, and his current players have enough ball and shooting skills that UNLV was forced to counterpunch with big plays each time the Thunderbirds cut into a lead.
Eventually, the Rebels will begin their journey in the Mountain West, a league filled with unique home courts that offer distinct challenges to visiting teams.
So when UNLV is sucking air at 7,200 feet in Wyoming or getting back-doored to death at Colorado Springs or trying to call out plays over a deafening roar in San Diego or countering what Larry Eustachy has up his sleeve in Fort Collins or wondering why an officiating crew is getting in the way of a good game as it did Wednesday in assessing 44 fouls, a win such as this could prove invaluable.
One of the best things about it for UNLV was how the wealth was spread and how many players offered key contributions. Six scored in double figures for the Rebels, who shot a blistering 59.6 percent and rightly outrebounded a smaller, less athletic side 38-26.
All this while playing without two starters and their leading scorer (Jalen Poyser) in foul trouble throughout.
Think about it: Once the lead was cut to 66-65, UNLV over the next three minutes increased the margin to eight. Then it was back to two. Jovan Mooring then hit a 3-pointer, and Southern Utah never got closer than five the rest of the way.
But during all the back-and-forth over those final eight or so minutes, Troy Baxter Jr. followed a miss with a dunk and Poyser drove for a layup and Dwayne Morgan hit a jumper.
It was never about just one player for UNLV, and maybe that’s how things will go this season. Poyser and Morgan are also those players a multitude of new faces need to lean on most, ones who have been through the Mountain West grind and know well those unique home courts and distinct challenges.
“Jalen and Dwayne can calm us down and help us get through things, and they did that tonight,” said Mooring, a junior college transfer guard who finished with 16 points, four rebounds and five assists. “We were tested here, and for a brand new team, I think we did really well. No game is easy. Some guys come in thinking they should win by 30, but it’s not like that. If the other team is making shots, it can be a long night.
“That was my first time playing on the road with a crowd like that. It’s a small gym, but the crowd got really loud. But at this level, sometimes you just have to make plays, and we made a lot of big ones down the stretch.”
The next road test is Saturday at Arizona State, where a taller, deeper, more athletic side than the one UNLV beat Wednesday awaits. UNLV will be pressed to shoot nearly as well in Tempe and probably won’t have as many opportunities at the rim.
But if the Rebels can take care of the ball as they did in the second half Wednesday — UNLV had four turnovers in the final 20 minutes compared with nine before halftime — and again get production from several names, it’s a winnable situation.
“I’ve been doing this 36 years, and if you get a road win, that’s big,” Menzies said. “There are going to be people that complain we didn’t win by enough. That’s fine. We got it done, and any time you can get a road win, especially for young guys to go through that experience, it’s valuable.
“Every time we threw something at them defensively, (Simon) had a great counter and we had to keep adjusting. It wasn’t checkers. It was chess. You have to give Todd credit for getting his guys ready to play and for their performance.”
Also credit UNLV for how it responded to the first time away from home this season.
It was the perfect test, and the Rebels aced it.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.