PROVO — For decades, BYU and UNLV were rivals in the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference, meeting regularly on the basketball court and competing for league championships.
But the two programs haven’t played since the 2010-2011 season, before BYU joined the West Coast Conference in basketball in 2011-12.
Well, the rivalry renews Saturday (6:30 p.m., MST, ESPN3) when the Cougars and the Runnin’ Rebels meet at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. It marks the first time the two programs will square off on a neutral floor.
“I think we’ll have a good crowd of Cougar fans there. It’s a new arena,” said BYU coach Dave Rose. “Since it’s opened a couple of years ago, I’ve always tried to figure out a way to get a game in there.”
Rose is also happy that his team will play UNLV next year in Salt Lake City.
Saturday's game is the first matchup that BYU has been able to schedule against a Mountain West opponent that the Cougars used to play during their Mountain West days. BYU did lose to San Diego State in 2014 but that was a game that was set up by the Maui Invitational. After playing UNLV, the Cougars will visit San Diego State on Dec. 22.
“It hasn’t been that we’re trying to stay away from them,” Rose said of Mountain West teams. “I don’t think they really want to come to the Marriott Center. I guess I shouldn’t say that.”
With the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s increased emphasis on playing stronger non-conference schedules, Mountain West teams are more willing to play BYU.
“Those guys are a little more anxious to get a series with a top-50, top-75 team,” Rose said.
The last time BYU and UNLV played in Las Vegas was on Jan. 5, 2011, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Cougar guards Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery combined for 61 points and 13 3-pointers in leading BYU to an 89-77 victory.
That win was the Cougars' first in Las Vegas against UNLV since 2005. That night, they snapped an eight-game road losing streak to the Rebels.
This year's BYU team is coming off an 85-66 win over Portland State last Wednesday. Guard TJ Haws poured in a career-high 30 points, including five 3-pointers.
Haws is looking forward to the matchup against UNLV.
“I’ve grown up watching a lot of BYU-UNLV games. They’ve been big games,” Haws said. “But our team’s got to focus on us and our energy. If we do that, we have a good chance of winning on Saturday.”
Forward Yoeli Childs, who had scored 31 points in three consecutive games, was held to 13 on Wednesday, although he has been dealing with an illness.
“He’s had a sore throat and he’s not as physically strong as he usually is,” Rose said. “He wants to play, that’s the issue. He’s a competitive guy.”
BYU (8-4) is hoping Childs will be closer to full strength against the Rebels.
UNLV (4-4), meanwhile, might be without one of its top players. Senior forward Shakur Juiston has an injured left knee and could be sidelined Saturday. He’s averaging 10.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
In their last game, the Rebels fell at Illinois, 77-74. UNLV is led by guard Kris Clyburn, who averages 11.3 points.
“They played Illinois really good,” Rose said. “From their stats, they look like they’re a bigger, stronger, more athletic version of (Portland State) … They play a really aggressive half-court defense and they love to drive it. They’re a good offensive rebounding team.”
After losing three straight games, BYU has now won three consecutive contests.
After falling 113-103 at Weber State two weeks ago, the Cougars held a players-only meeting and strung together three wins in a row over Utah State, Utah and Portland State.
What’s been the difference for BYU the past couple of weeks?
“After Weber State, we really had to look at ourselves and decide who we are. We bounced back really well. Energy and passion has been our main focus in every game,” Haws said. “We feel that if we have great energy on both ends of the floor that good things are going to happen.
"In all three games, we’ve had great energy and hopefully that continues. We’ve been building good habits in practice. That energy’s been there in practice. If we can keep that energy high at all times, I think we’re a pretty good team.”
The past two games, freshman guard Connor Harding has moved into the starting lineup, with positive results.4 comments on this story
“He’s one of the best rebounders on our team. That’s probably what gave him the nod. Then he has a real good feel for the game as far as when to pass, when to shoot, when to cut, when to back cut, when to attack the basket,” Rose said. “You look at five points and five rebounds in a game and you're not really impressed with those stats. But I’ll tell you, how he fit with that group of guys and got the ball in the right places and ran our offense, helped us on the defensive end and rebounding. It was a good fit for us.”
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Cougars on the air
vs. UNLV (4-4)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM