Friday, March 22, 1991 | 2 a.m.
SEATTLE – If you had walked into the postgame press conference without having seen the game, you would have sworn UNLV lost to Utah Thursday night in the NCAA West Regional semifinals instead of winning rather easily, 83-66.
The morgue-like mood in the locker room and the despondent comments made by the players leads you to believe the Rebels’ fantastic 33-0 season is over.
Far from it. And don’t let what you’re about to read fool you.
UNLV’s man-to-man defense had taken a bit of a hiatus in the Kingdome. But the 1-3-1 amoeba zone was clicking magnificently.
In addition, Larry Johnson played like an All-American, especially in the second half, and there wasn’t a thing the Utes could do about it.
Johnson scored 23 points, 15 of them coming in the second half, to go along with 13 rebounds. It is why UNLV never had to worry about getting its shot at Seton Hall Saturday for the right to go to Indianapolis and a berth in the Final Four a week from tomorrow.
“I came out with the frame of mind I wanted to win the ballgame,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want the season to end and neither did my teammates.”
Which is precisely what has Greg Anthony concerned going into Saturday’s game with the Pirates, who beat Arizona 81-77 in the other NCAA West Regional semifinal played here Thursday.
“We have to get tough,” Anthony said. “Excuse my French but we played like (bleep) tonight. Right now, we’re a very average basketball team. I just hope we can get it together and play like we’re capable Saturday.”
Coach Jerry Tarkanian thought Anthony’s comments were a bit harsh. But he did agree the team has to pick up the intensity come Saturday.
“I was very disappointed that we weren’t able to take them out of their offense,” Tarkanina said. “We were playing so good earlier in the season, we were four notches above everyone else.
“I don’t know if we’ve come back down or other teams have come up. But we’re not playing our man defense with the same intensity as we were earlier this season.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Tarkanian continued, “I’m very, very pleased to have won by 16 (sic) points. But I think we’re capable of playing better.”
Anthony said it has been weeks since the Rebels played up to their capabilities.
“We’ve been playing lousy since the Big West tournament,” Anthony said. “I don’t know the last time we played like we can. Maybe it was New Mexico State.”
“We haven’t had good chemistry on defense. We just have to toughen up mentally.”
There were times, however, where UNLV looked very good defensively. Spurred by Johnson, who was out on the wing blocking shots and crashing the boards at both ends, the Rebels pressured Utah into making bad decisions forcing poor shots and causing a lot of confusion for the Utes.
“I think we became a little complacent in the second half,” Utah’s Josh Grant said. “We hadn’t played great in the first half and we were still in it so I was trying to stay positive and come out and play a great second half.”
But the Rebels, particularly Johnson, wouldn’t let Grant and his teammates improve. UNLV’s 41-35 halftime edge grew to 16 points with 8:06 to play and it was the end of the line for Rick Majerus’ team.
“UNLV is obviously the best team we played,” Majerus said. “They played very hard. But I think we pulled the trigger a little too quick. We were getting good shots and we had good ball movement. We didn’t want to be tentative.”
“But Larry Johnson is so tough, so tough. He’s such a great player. We couldn’t handle him. The things we do against other people we couldn’t do against UNLV.”
Walter Watts, Utah’s 260-pound center, said Johnson was a bit more than he could chew.
“He’s tough,” Watts said of Johnson. “He’d get position down in the low post and he’s a real strong player.”
The Rebels also had contributions in other areas. Anderson Hunt got off to a fast start in the first half and had 11 points. But he didn’t see the ball much in the second half and finished with just 12.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Hunt, who was 4 of 7 from the field in his first half, yet attempted just two more shots. “I guess they wanted to get it down low to the big guys.”
Center Elmore Spencer played 26 minutes and he took a team-high 14 shots. Spencer finished with 15 points, which matched his career-high set Feb. 7 against Fresno State.
“Coach wanted us to get the ball inside more,” he said of the high number of shots he took. “I tried not to force any bad shots and just work within the system.”
Starting center George Ackles was moving well on his injured left foot, sprained last Friday in the first-round tournament win over Montana. But he experienced some tendonitis problems with his left knee during the warm-ups and aggravated the leg when he came down awkwardly on a rebound attempt.
“It’s no big thing,” said Ackles, who finished with 12 points. “I’ll be there Saturday, don’t worry.”
Even Anthony had a good game, dishing out 10 points while committing just one turnover. Add to that the defensive job Stacey Augmon did on Grant, holding him around his average at 17 points and the game doesn’t seem as bleak as the Rebels would have you believe.
“If that’s an off-night for them, I don’t want to see what it’s like when they’re hitting on all cylinders,” Majerus said of UNLV. “That’s a helluva team we played tonight.”