Sunday, Feb. 22, 1987 | 2 a.m.
LAS CRUCES, N.M.—Trailing New Mexico State by 19 points at halftime Saturday, UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian didn’t figure screaming or throwing clipboards would do much good—even though he said the Rebels were sleepwalking through the first half.
Tarkanian told the Rebels they had one chance to win: full-court, man-to-man pressure defense.
The UNLV players bought it. The Rebels quickly erased the New Mexico State lead and went on to an 80-69 Pacific Coast Athletic Association win in front of 13,002 at the Pan American Center.
The victory improved the top-ranked Rebels’ overall mark to 28-1 and their PCAA record to 16-0. The Aggies feel to 14-13 and 8-8.
The Rebels did practically nothing right in the first half and trailed 43-24 at the intermission. UNLV shot 22 percent from the floor, was outrebounded and didn’t bother to play defense.
“It was like we were still at the hotel. We didn’t do anything,” Tarkanian said. “We didn’t guard anybody. We were soft everywhere. We just weren’t playing hard in the first half. That’s the whole thing.”
The Rebels went to the locker room expecting a good chewing out, which they admitted they deserved.
“He didn’t even yell,” said UNLV guard Gary Graham, who missed all five of his first-half shots but finished with 11 points. “He came in and said ‘Fellas, you can play like you did in the first half or you can walk out of here with your heads up.’ He didn’t even talk about winning.”
Tarkanian’s plan was to pressure the Aggies all over the court, something he didn’t want to do coming into the game.
“I didn’t think we could use full-court pressure, since we played Thursday night, traveled Friday, then had to play Saturday afternoon,” Tarkanian said. “Also, with their crowd into the game, I thought it would be tough for us to use it. But the way we played in the first half I knew it was our only chance.”
The Rebels wasted little time getting back into the game, opening the second half with a 19-4 run and cutting the lead to four at the 14:43 mark. UNLV point guard Mark Wade said the Rebels intimidated New Mexico State at the start of the second half.
“It was like they were saying ‘We’re playing a team that’s on a different level than us,’” Wade said. “If I was playing a team that was down by 19 and looked like they were ahead when they came out for the second half, I’d be scared too.”
Wade was instrumental in the Rebels’ rally, rebounding from a 1-for-8 shooting performance to nail three three-pointers in the second half. He finished with 13 points.
“The little fella (Wade) hit some big shots when they made their run,” New Mexico State head coach Neil McCarthy said. “You don’t expect Wade to hurt you,”
The Aggies withstood UNLV’s charge momentarily, but a layup by Gerald Paddio cut the lead to 54-51 with 10:53 to play.
Any chance the Aggies had of holding off the Rebels disappeared at the 10:04 mark when Kenny Travis fouled out and McCarthy was assessed a technical four for arguing the call.
Travis had picked up his fourth foul with 12:17 to play, but McCarthy elected to leave the 6-2 senior in. Travis, who scored 22 points in the first half, left with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
Freddie Bankes stepped to the line and hit four straight free throws, then scored on a layup 10 seconds later. The six-point play gave the Rebels a 57-54 edge with 9:54 remaining. Even though the lead was just three, the game was over.
“Losing Kenny hurt us,” McCarthy said. “We needed him. He was having a great game. Why not leave him in? We weren’t doing anything else.”
The Aggies closed the gap to one point a couple of times, but the inside play of Armon Gilliam and a pair of three-pointers by Graham helped the Rebels pull away.
Gilliam scored 20 of his team high 24 points in the second half. He also had 12 rebounds and hit 10 of 13 shots from the floor in the second half.
Graham said he knew at halftime the Rebels were going to win.
“We all knew deep down we had to do it,” he said. “We’ve created a unity among us, a know how to win. That’s all it takes.”