Rebels' rise: Rashad Vaughn stars in big win

Vaughn Discusses UNLV's Upset Of Arizona (1:51)

Rashad Vaughn talks about his 21-point performance and what UNLV's 71-67 win over Arizona does for the Rebels' confidence. (1:51)

Something had been brewing all night.

Those unpredictable, pre-holiday break, "I just want to go home" blues had stirred up chaos in college basketball again. The week began with Temple topping Kansas by a billion points on Monday.

And that vibe seeped into a fascinating slate on Tuesday that ended with UNLV -- the same UNLV that lost to Arizona State by 22 on Dec. 3 and Utah by 13 just three days ago -- defeating Arizona 71-67 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

It was Arizona's first loss of the year. Losing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to foul trouble late magnified a challenge that the Wildcats' skill has hidden all year: There's a major drop in talent and experience once you get past Hollis-Jefferson on the Arizona bench.

When you have four legit NBA prospects, a limited bench isn't the urgent concern it might be for most teams. But Arizona's reserves scored six points on 2-for-7 shooting. That's not good. But if you decide to scrutinize this loss in a true road atmosphere and identify reasons to doubt Arizona's potential, that's fine but not prudent. Arizona is still a contender, just a contender that had a bad night -- and a lack of fight -- on the road.

The story of Tuesday night -- an evening that featured NJIT's halftime lead over Villanova, Hawaii's overtime loss to Wichita State and Stanford's win at Texas -- was about a freshman who helped a UNLV squad ranked No. 132 by Ken Pomeroy get a quality win in a big upset.

Rashad Vaughn's high school career began in Minneapolis and ended with a stint at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. When he chose UNLV, Rebels coach Dave Rice knew he had a potential star.

In the scramble for talent in the one-and-done era, coaches no longer seek to build a program as much as they aim to construct the sturdiest tent in a climate that forces top teams to tweak rosters and turn to inexperienced athletes as players transfer and leave early each year. It's a frustrating task.

But the best have access to the top temporary talent. So even though they're swapping Embiids for Alexanders each season, they're not losing much.

The Runnin' Rebels have tapped into that pool. In all, Rice has lured seven players who cracked the ESPN100 (RecruitingNation) since his arrival in 2011.

That talent, however, hasn't resulted in an abundance of postseason success. His squad has reached the Big Dance in two of the last three years. But Rice hasn't won an NCAA tournament game yet. The program hasn't earned a victory in March Madness since 2008. So the pressure on Rice, who signed a two-year extension last season, has risen.

"I would be remiss if we acted like everything is fantastic over at that basketball program, because it's not," said regent Cedric Crear after the extension was announced, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

So this incoming recruiting class -- anchored by five-stars Vaughn and Goodluck Okonoboh -- might be the most important of his career and tenure.

That's why Tuesday night's win was so promising.

Vaughn & Co. could elevate UNLV basketball. If UNLV can beat Arizona, it can certainly win the Mountain West, reach the NCAA tourney (the Runnin' Rebels missed the postseason last year) and win a game or two.

Vaughn was the leader on Tuesday. His stat line: 21 points (9-for-21), five assists, three rebounds and three steals. But that doesn't tell the full story.

Vaughn is one of the most effective offensive players in the country. He might be in the NBA as early as next season. As talented as he is, however, UNLV's offense hasn't even cracked the top-200 in Pomeroy's efficiency ratings.

His performance on Tuesday night against the Wildcats magnified how inept UNLV's offense is without him. He went to the bench for a stretch in the second half, and Rice's squad couldn't find the rim.

Once he returned, he kept making big plays. Rice isolated him and let him work. He can create a shot and get to the rim when he wants.

Christian Wood finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds for UNLV. Vaughn drew extra defenders whenever he penetrated, and that helped Wood and Vaughn's teammates.

Wood earned those numbers. But Vaughn was the most important player on the floor. He is a freshman who wouldn't stop. And that swagger helped UNLV score a win over one of America's best teams.

On some nights, Vaughn's shot selection or tally won't help UNLV. It will hurt UNLV. Any team relying on a freshman faces that risk.

And on some nights, there will be magic, because Vaughn will make it happen.

We all saw his first big show on Tuesday.