Utah State's basketball team has never beaten UNLV - it's 0-23 against the Rebels, ranked nationally. Tonight at 8 MST in Long Beach Arena, the four Aggie seniors and three coaches whose jobs terminate with the end of this campaign get a bonus chance at the Rebels.

Twice during the regular season they played well for a half only to lose 87-78 in Logan and 94-86 in Vegas.Now, in the opening round of the Big West Conference Tournament, the Ags get one more chance for that maiden win.

"It's hard to beat a team three times," enthuses USU 7-footer Nate Wickizer, a sophomore who must play well inside against a smaller, quicker Evric Gray if USU's to have any chance. "The thing is, nobody expects us to win, so that's even better," Wickizer says.

Coach Kohn Smith doesn't rely on that three-times stuff. "That's the case," he says, "if teams are pretty even."

The Aggies have yet to prove they are pretty even, and Smith worries UNLV will be back at peak form after losing Saturday at Fullerton.

"Rollie (coach Massimino) is using it to get after the players," Smith says. The Ags have heard UNLV practices this week were closed-door tough. Smith says he only hopes the Rebels are too tight.

For the first time, UNLV did not win at least a piece of the Big West regular-season championship, and the Rebels (13-5, 20-6) are the No. 2 seed. "The best word for that is disappointed," says Massimino.

The big hope for UNLV opponents is to get into the Rebel bench. Depth is the one thing they lack. The Rebs expect to have guard Reggie Manuel back from a back injury but are concerned about swingman Dexter Boney's swollen thumb. "I worry about the injuries," Massimino says, "but we really only play with seven or eight players anyway."

The 7-11, 10-16 Ags are Seed No. 7, thus earning the prime-time rematch with the Rebels. At least, says Smith, it's a night game, when players are used to playing. Last year, Utah State drew the 1 o'clock opening game and forgot to set their alarm clocks.

Monday's first postseason practice was like that, says assistant Jimmy Moore. Like Smith and assistant Reid Newey, Moore looks for work following the Ags' next loss. Smith was told Jan. 28 his contract would not be renewed. "It's been a really hard week," says Smith, a Logan native. "We haven't had a real emotional edge, that's for sure."

The Aggies were embarrassed by a 10-point loss in the Spectrum Saturday to last-place Nevada, and that helped spur them this week, Smith says. "We're not looking at this to end our season."

To keep going, USU must slow J.R. Rider, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound Charles Barkley-type do-all forward. Keep his scoring in the 20s, there's a chance. Junior Rod Hay, 6-8, draws the task but needs help chasing Rider, who floats anywhere on the court. He's the BWC point champ at 29.2 a game and a sure NBA lottery pick. "Rod's got a tough assignment, yet he's also got to score for us," says Smith.

"We need to have our role players play well," Smith says of junior Trent Rose and seniors Gary Patterson and Todd Gentry, who have to help Hay and Wickizer inside with Rider and Gray.

Obviously, the league's No. 3 scorer, senior Jay Goodman (18.4), who's No. 2 in the NCAA in steals (3.8 a game), must be his best, too. "We've got to shoot well and hit the open man and not turn it over against their traps," says Smith. Those responsibilities mainly rest with point-guard Goodman.

The starter at off-guard will be Junsie Cotten, coming off back-to-back 21-point games, the first at Las Vegas. He's shot 62 percent from the field the last three games.