DALLAS (AP) -- Dan McCarney couldn't imagine a better place for North Texas' first bowl win in 11 years and a breakthrough in his rebuilding job.
The 36-year coaching veteran with stints at Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa had never stepped inside the historic Cotton Bowl before the Mean Green were invited to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Leaving with a 36-14 victory over UNLV in front of a strong showing from green-clad fans Wednesday made his first game there even better.
"Walking into one of the great stadiums in the history of college football, you have a whole sea of green, it's unbelievable," said McCarney, who led North Texas to more wins this season than the five years combined before he arrived in 2012. "I'll have that in my mind forever."
Two of the seniors who wanted to play in front of family and friends just 45 miles from the Denton campus were instrumental in the happy ending.
Derek Thompson threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns, Brelan Chancellor scored twice and the Mean Green (9-4) pulled away from a 7-7 halftime tie for their first postseason win since the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
The school's third postseason victory came in front of a strong turnout of 38,380 on a sunny day, nine years after North Texas played the last of four straight bowls in New Orleans.
UNLV (7-6) drove 95 yards for a touchdown on its opening possession but didn't score again until the Mean Green were up 28-7 in the fourth quarter.
The Rebels lost in the postseason for the first time in the school's fourth bowl game and first since 2000 after coach Bobby Hauck won two games in each of his first three seasons.
"I told them I was proud of them and in particular our seniors for having turned the ship around," Hauck said. "We were not good when we all came together a few years ago."
Chancellor had 121 yards combined -- 74 receiving and 47 rushing, including scoring runs of 3 and 15 yards in the fourth quarter -- and keyed the go-ahead scoring drive in the third with some nifty footwork on a first-down catch.
"We sent a message that this is a program on the rise," McCarney said. "I think we're a good example for other football teams that if you do things the right way, it can pay off."
Chancellor had the play that got North Texas going in a 7-all tie when he slipped past UNLV's Peni Vea along the sideline and stayed inbounds for a 17-yard catch on third-and-16.
The first of four third-down conversions on the drive came one play after North Texas was backed up by a late-hit penalty on guard Mason Y'Barbo.
Nine plays later -- and again on third down -- Thompson rolled right and threw left to a wide-open Miller in the end zone for the first of four second-half North Texas touchdowns.
Thompson's 34-yard scoring toss to Darnell Smith put North Texas up 28-7 midway through the fourth quarter.
"We're a second-half football team," said Thompson, who was 21 of 30 without an interception and voted the game's MVP. "We've been that all year. We knew if we picked up the tempo that we could do some things and move the football."
Tim Cornett, UNLV's career rushing leader, was held to 33 yards -- 71 below his average and the same total as quarterback Caleb Herring, who threw for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
"Our yards per carry just weren't good enough and defensively, we weren't good enough on third down," Hauck said. "We got into some third-down situations where we had the upper hand and they converted."
Herring's second scoring toss was a 13-yarder to Jerry Rice Jr., the first career touchdown for the son of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in his final college game.
North Texas, which came in with one of the nation's top scoring defenses, forced seven straight scoreless UNLV possessions and sacked Herring five times. The Rebels punted the first three times they had the ball after halftime, and the Mean Green scored after each one.
UNLV jumped in front in the first quarter on Marcus Sullivan's 9-yard TD reception. Devante Davis set up the score with a 29-yard grab, and finished with 10 catches for 96 yards.
The Rebels then had a chance to grab control, but Keith Whitely muffed a punt and Zed Evans recovered for North Texas at the UNLV 42. Antoinne Jimmerson had the tying score on a run from inside the 1.