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UNLV to close regular season at Wyoming

In a normal season, UNLV would have about two weeks after the end of the regular season to prepare for the Mountain West tournament.

But with games that were postponed because of COVID-19 being rescheduled, that has been cut to four days.

The Rebels will close their regular season with a road trip to meet Wyoming at 8 p.m. Saturday at Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. Despite the quick turnaround between Saturday’s game and the tournament, coach T.J. Otzelberger said the Rebels’ top priority is closing the regular season with a win.

“We’re going up there to give ourselves the best chance we can to win the game,” Otzelberger said. “I think that would help us build confidence and momentum going into the tournament. At the same time, we’ve got to be mindful of what we’re up against and what could develop in the Mountain West tournament.”

The Rebels (11-13, 8-9) are in seventh place in the league standings and can finish no lower than that. They would move up to sixth with a win and a Fresno State loss to Utah State on Saturday.

UNLV has shown marked improvement on the defensive end in its last three games but managed only a 1-2 record, splitting two games with Fresno State and losing against Mountain West regular-season champion San Diego State.

The Rebels allowed Fresno State and San Diego State to shoot 36.4 percent in their losses. In the game UNLV won, Fresno State shot 45.7 percent but went 7-for-20 in the second half and made only one field goal in the final 11:04.

“There’s been progress defensively,” Otzelberger said. “We’re doing a much better job of protecting the rim, helping on penetration and not letting people score easy 2-point field goals. It’s got to be our calling card against Wyoming and in the tournament. We have to embrace that identity and continue to improve on that end of the floor.”

While the defense has mostly been solid, UNLV has been plagued by fouls. Otzelberger is particularly unhappy with fouls he deems unnecessary.

During the latest three-game stretch, UNLV’s opponents have shot 68 free throws to its 30.

“A lot of it comes down to discipline, removing the temptation to put your hands in an area where you can be called for a foul,” Otzelberger said.

The Rebels’ next chance to fix that problem comes against a Wyoming team that is third in the league in scoring at 75.4 per game but second worst in scoring defense at 75.9. The Cowboys (12-10, 6-9) grab five fewer rebounds than their opponents on average.

Freshman guard Marcus Williams scores 15.4 points per game to lead the Cowboys. Hunter Maldonado averages 12.3 points and tops them with 6.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

“They’re a very unique offensive ballclub,” Otzelberger said. “They try to play a few actions to get you to overreact. Maldonado is a really challenging mismatch player. They post him against smaller guards, so you have to do a great job of guarding without fouling while also getting out to defend the 3-point line.”

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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