LAS VEGAS — Southern Utah basketball is a program that is trying to rebuild.
In his third season, coach Nick Robinson is in the process of re-establishing Southern Utah's legitimacy, especially as the team enters its third season in the competitive Big Sky conference.
Part of that rebuilding process has included playing elite competition. Last season, the Thunderbirds played the team headed by Robinson’s college coach, Mike Montgomery, at California, among other places. This season, Southern Utah has played the Big 12’s Kansas State and the Mountain West’s Boise State, losing both games by double digits.
Saturday the Thunderbirds played one of the Mountain West’s traditional powers, traveling to Las Vegas to take on UNLV. The game was another growing experience for the program, as the T-Birds fell to the Runnin’ Rebels, 79-45.
UNLV opened the game on a 14-7 run, highlighted by a couple of early three-pointers. The Thunderbirds would get as close as four points, trailing 18-14 with 13:17, before the Rebels went on a 10-0 to take a 28-14 lead.
Southern Utah forward Tyler Rawson led the Thunderbirds with 13 points.
Southern Utah shot just 34.4 percent in the first half and 25.4 percent for the game. The most important stat may have been rebounding, as the Rebels outrebounded the T-Birds 50-32 in that category.
Robinson said UNLV’s size presented problems for his squad all game.
“(UNLV forward Christian Wood) had five blocks this evening, and that maybe got in the minds of our guys just a little bit,” he said. “But their length caused us a little bit of problems, especially around the basket. We shot 46 two-pointers, and 40 of those were all in the paint and we didn’t convert on them.”
Southern Utah was not without its bright spots though, as the T-Birds' zone defense kept UNLV from creating a dominant advantage. The defensive style allowed SUU to close the first half on a 10-2 run, trailing 36-28 at halftime.
Robinson noted the defensive style is important in conference play.
“We play three primary defenses,” said Robinson, whose team held UNLV to 37.5 percent shooting in the first half. “We’ll adjust things in man and zone, and we’ll definitely play some zone. In conference, our size and our length will be a little bit more to our advantage, than maybe it was this evening.”
Also, Southern Utah’s bench outscored UNLV 35-21 in the game.
Despite the positives, UNLV opened the second half on a 20-1 run, and the outcome was never in question from there.
The Thunderbirds open conference play on New Year’s Day in Portland and are coming off a 1-19 conference record in 2013-14.
Robinson said he’s hopeful the team is prepared for conference play after the rough ending to the preseason.
“We’re excited for an opportunity to start conference Thursday,” he said. “We’ve got a great league in the Big Sky, looking at preseason. Looks like it’s going to relatively even from top to bottom. Every night is going to be important, and we’ll move on from this pretty quickly.”