UNLV likely couldn't be happier to return to its home court -- even if it's only for two games.
The 21st-ranked Runnin' Rebels, coming off four straight games away from the Thomas & Mack Center in which they scraped by while losing one of their best players to injury, will host Northern Iowa on Wednesday night in a Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge game.It's also a rematch of a 2010 NCAA tournament contest won by Northern Iowa, 69-66.UNLV (9-1) has won seven straight overall, but its three recent road victories came by a combined margin of 11 points. The Thomas & Mack Center played host to the National Finals Rodeo from Dec. 6-15, sending the Rebels to games at Portland, California and UTEP surrounding a rout of Division III La Verne at nearby Orleans Arena.They appeared to be cruising to another easy win with a 15-point second-half lead against the Miners on Monday, but UNLV's 62-60 victory was only secure when UTEP missed a shot at the buzzer.Coach Dave Rice was happy to see his team escape, but he knows more difficult road tests await the Rebels. UNLV hosts Canisius on Saturday before visiting No. 23 North Carolina on Dec. 29, and trips to No. 16 New Mexico and No. 18 San Diego State loom next month."We have to do a much better job of keeping our composure when we are challenged on the road," Rice said. "We were challenged today and there are lessons to be learned and yet not to lose the game to a good team is a credit to our guys."The win over UTEP was UNLV's second straight game without junior forward Mike Moser, who was averaging 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. Moser, an honorable mention All-American last season, dislocated his elbow during the Rebels' 76-75 win at Cal on Dec. 9, and Rice said he thought the injury would keep Moser out for "some time."UNLV could get a boost from sophomore forward Khem Birch, who was eligible for the first time Monday after transferring from Pittsburgh. Birch, who posted four points and three rebounds over 14 minutes, was a McDonald's High School All-American.The Rebels continue to be led offensively by Anthony Bennett, the top freshman scorer in the nation at 19.3 points per game, though he was held to a season-low 10 on 2-of-9 shooting against UTEP.Northern Iowa (6-4) is 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, losing to Louisville and Memphis in the Bahamas last month. The Panthers have dropped four straight road games against Top 25 foes since a 63-59 victory at then-No. 16 Wichita State on Dec. 30, 2006.Leading scorer Deon Mitchell's 23 points couldn't prevent an 80-73 loss to Iowa in Des Moines on Saturday, snapping Northern Iowa's three-game winning streak.Ali Farokhmanesh's 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left was the difference in the Panthers' 2010 NCAA tourney matchup with UNLV, the programs' first meeting. Then-freshmen Jake Koch and Marc Sonnen, who remain on the Northern Iowa team, combined for 13 points while current senior Anthony Marshall scored six for the Rebels.The Mountain West Conference has already clinched this season's series against the Missouri Valley, winning five of the first eight games before this concluding matchup, but Northern Iowa is 3-0 in this event.