Monday, Nov. 24, 2008 | 8:13 p.m.
Final, UNLV wins 80-67
EL PASO -- There was a time in the first half when UTEP led UNLV Monday night by 13 points. In the end, it was easy to forget that.
The Rebels' 7-0 run to open up the second half gave them the lead for good as they took care of the once-feisty Miners 80-67 in El Paso.
Wink Adams scored 20 points and Tre'Von Willis added 17 points for UNLV, who improves to 5-0 on the season and is off until Friday, when they host Cal at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Miners led big in the first half, but that was then Willis and junior big man Darris Santee set off a 12-2 run to help the Rebels avoid falling off the map in this one for good. Santee first hit two off the glass between two defenders. Then, Willis caught UTEP guard Randy Culpepper over-celebrating after a big layup, shot down the court and finished a coast-to-coast trip with a layup of his own. Willis then took a feed from Wink Adams off a UTEP turnover and cashed a three from the wing.
When Willis went out with foul trouble early in the second half, freshman Oscar Bellfield stepped in and scored five points to help put the Miners away.
For UTEP, it was their first loss of the season. The Miners were led by Stefon Jackson, who scored a team-high 20 points.
René Rougeau added 11 for the Rebels, while Bellfield finished with 10.
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3:02, second half, UNLV leads 71-64
EL PASO -- Right now, the Rebels are doing all the things they need to do to hold on in a tight game down the stretch. They're hitting a tough shot here and there - see Wink Adams - and they're hitting free throws - see Tre'Von Willis.
The Miners are making their late push, though. Gabriel McCulley cashed a three right in front of the UTEP bench to pull the Miners to within three at 67-64, and Tony Barbee called a timeout immediately after to give his team some extra time to breathe before the game's final media timeout.
After the timeout, Oscar Bellfield missed a three, but McCulley was called for a pushing foul, knocking Tre'Von Willis over after the UNLV guard snatched a tough defensive board. Both teams are in the double bonus, which favors UNLV at this point. They've been the lesser of two evils, shooting just under 80 percent from the line, while UTEP is shooting charities at just a 57-percent clip tonight. Willis hit one of two on that final trip, giving him a team-high 15 points on the night.
Wink Adams then buried a three to give himself 15 points, and maybe give the Rebels all the breathing room they need for the rest of the night.
11:19, second half, UNLV leads 56-52
EL PASO -- Just when UTEP was making its major push behind a 3-pointer from Randy Culpepper, UNLV - or Oscar Bellfield - answered.
Bellfield took a huge charge on the baseline with Stefon Jackson charging hard towards the rack. That forced the crowd to erupt in boos. Then, Bellfield answered with a tough two inside off the glass on the other end.
UTEP big man Claude Britten threw down a putback slam on the Miners' next possession, but Bellfield again answered, this time with a straight-ahead three. After playing just six minutes and going scoreless in the first half, he has eight points in the second half with Tre'Von Willis on the bench with three fouls.
UNLV has some more foul trouble at the moment, with Brice Massamba and Darris Santee both carrying three fouls.
By far, Bellfield's most impressive stretch so far as a Rebel.
15:58, second half, UNLV leads 44-41
EL PASO, Texas -- As predicted, the opening minutes of the second half proved very important. The Rebels finished what they started late in the first half, scored the first seven points out of the intermission and now lead 44-41.
Tre'Von Willis put himself in double figures with a bucket, but soon after picked up his third foul of the game, bringing Oscar Bellfield in off of the bench. Bellfield, who was oddly quiet in the first half, just scored his first bucket on an and-one layup going strong against UTEP 7-footer Kareem Cooper. He missed the charity, but UNLV is crashing the boards hard, and now just has to stay the course over the final 16 minutes.
I guess it's worth pointing out now that when UNLV trailed big in the first half, I turned to Miech and said 'They're not winning this game.' Shows you how much I know. True, they haven't won anything yet, but the fact that they've clawed back and lead is a huge testament to their mental strength.
Halftime, UTEP leads 38-35
EL PASO, Texas -- Considering where this game was about 10 minutes ago, the fact that UNLV trails by only three points at halftime is quite impressive.
UNLV went on that 12-2 run keyed by Darris Santee and Tre'Von Willis, and with some more clutch plays down the stretch - such as another three by Willis and a strong baseline jumper by Rene Rougeau - UNLV has to be believing as it heads into the locker room.
UTEP looks like a team that certainly didn't expect the Rebels to go on a run as soon as they did. The Miners were visibly stung, and have not capitalized on some golden opportunities. UTEP is just 4-of-9 from the free-throw line.
As for some more numbers from the first half, here ya go ...
-Rene Rougeau leads the Rebels with nine points, while Tre'Von Willis has eight. Willis' first half turned out solid after he looked a tad unsteady in the opening minutes.
-The Rebels, believe it or not, shot a better percentage than the Miners. UNLV shot 50 percent from the floor, while UTEP shot 45.7.
-Stefon Jackson leads all scorers with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting. He's looked impressive, getting shots wherever and whenever he's wanted them.
-UNLV has just six assists to 10 turnovers.
-Brice Massamba played just four minutes, but picked up three fouls, and Lon Kruger had to go to Beas Hamga just before the half, who lost a ball out of bounds right off the bat.
-Oscar Bellfield only played six minutes as Willis got the start at the point. The only stat he recorded of any kind was one assist.
If UNLV can keep UTEP on the ropes here to start the second half like they were to finish the first, the Rebels probably come back and win this game. UTEP's youth is starting to show a bit. The Miners have just one senior and one junior in uniform tonight.
Final note: You've got to love an arena where the P.A. announcer splashes some spanish in with his calls.
I'll be back en un poco tiempo. Is that correcto? My spanglish is a little rusty. Haven't studied it in about six years ...
3:59, first half, UTEP leads 34-29
EL PASO, Texas -- Trailing by 11, the Rebels just needed the slightest window to get back into a game that was seemingly getting out of hand.
Darris Santee scored his third bucket of the night on a tough put-back between two Miners. Randy Culpepper answered for UTEP with a soaring layup. But he celebrated a bit too much, and Tre'Von Willis took the opportunity to blow by him and go coast-to-coast for his first points of the game. Willis then hit a three which was the biggest play in the 12-2 run.
That helped take the crowd out of it just a little bit, and UNLV appears to have settled as a whole as a result.
7:48, first half, UTEP leads 28-17
EL PASO, Texas -- Stefon Jackson continues to give the Rebels all kinds of problems defensively, as he's showing just what has made him probably the best player in Conference USA. He leads all scorers so far with eight points to pace UTEP to a 28-17 lead.
What's been so impressive about the 6-foot-5 senior is that he hasn't needed any space at all to get a shot off. So far, two of his buckets have been of the and-one variety.
The amount of guys the Miners are throwing at UNLV is impressive. Only one Miner has yet to take off his warmups. Six of the UTEP players to play so far have scored. The Rebels are also getting deeper into their bench, but not much is working. They have three assists to eight turnovers so far.
11:15, first half, UTEP leads 18-14
EL PASO, Texas -- While UNLV's looking a bit reluctant to consistently get the ball into the paint, UTEP's guards and wings look absolutely fearless. Julyan Stone just came off the bench for the Miners and took an inbounds pass coast-to-coast, floating two in off the glass on a power drive from the right block.
So far, it's mostly been the seniors doing the offensive work for UNLV, with Wink Adams having just hit a fading baseline jumper. René Rougeau's looked more comfortable than anyone in a red uniform.
UNLV isn't trying to go to the 3-point shot too much so far, with just three attempts through almost nine minutes.
The Rebels are trying to adjust to facing a team with more length and athleticism than anything they've seen yet. Don't let the name UTEP fool you. There's a good amount of raw talent on this Miners ball club.
15:44, first half, UNLV leads 8-7
EL PASO, Texas -- It's been flash vs. steady so far in El Paso, as the Rebels have executed their normal offensive sets in grabbing an early 8-7 lead on the Miners. UTEP's kept pace with a bit of flair. Stefon Jackson hit an and-one jumper (but missed the charity), while Arnett Moultrie threw down a two-handed transition dunk, and Randy Culpepper hit a deep three.
What UNLV's done best so far is get the ball inside Darris Santee has two dunks so far off of great feeds. First was on a Joe Darger bullet inside, then came a Tre'Von Willis no-look pass. Willis, though, took an ill-advised 3-point attempt just before the T.V. timeout which caught nothing but air. You've got to wonder how much that slightly separated shoulder he's playing through is bothering him.
As for the atmosphere down here, it's about a two-thirds full gym. Not too loud. Looks like Brice Massamba will be the first Rebel off the bench tonight. He's got the second-best body of the three post men in terms of being able to handle UTEP's burly 7-footer, Kareem Cooper.
EL PASO, Texas -- All kinds of good pregame nuggets to offer up tonight.
First, it's hard not to think of the 1966 Texas Western team which made history by upsetting Adolph Rupp and Kentucky for the NCAA title. And, of course, the story was made big again in recent years with the release of Glory Road. That said, it's pretty cool to pull up to Don Haskins Center here on the Texas-El Paso campus and see the street sign outside for Glory Road.
Inside, the banner is hung high with a spotlight on it.
The Rebels got a bit of inspiration of their own tonight, as former Rebel guard Greg Anthony, calling the action tonight on CBS College Sports, spoke with the team on the bus before they headed into the ball yard. Anthony of course was a starter on the 1990 title team and also helped lead the Rebels back to the national semis in '91.
I had a chance to catch up with him for about five minutes while he sipped some Starbucks and watched the Rebels run layup lines.
As for what he said on the bus ...
"I just told them how proud I am," he said. "I'm proud of what all of coach Kruger's groups have done."
I also asked him what would concern him in terms of preparation if his 1990 or 1991 squad - in its prime, of course - was to face this current Rebels unit.
"They play great defense," Anthony continued. "The other thing I love is that coach Kruger is one of the best in the country at teaching team defense."
This is Anthony's first chance getting to call the action for his alma mater. He said staying objective is never an issue in situations like this, since he gets just as into the action now as an announcer as he did when he was a player.
"I used the analogy of when people ask you if the crowd really bothers you when you're playing," he said, adding that once you're in the heat of the moment, crowd noise can't break your focus if you're worth your salt.
This, as you by now probably know, is UNLV's first venture outside of the Thomas & Mack Center, and from that you could assume that we'll learn quite a bit more about Lon Kruger's ballclub tonight than we have in any of the season's first four games. Not only is it sure to be a hostile road environment, but UTEP's got a nice squad.
Most of the attention will focus on each team's leading scorer heading into tonight. For UNLV, it's Wink Adams, while the Miners boast a legitimate NBA prospect in 6-foot-5 senior Stefon Jackson. He could provide the biggest matchup problem UNLV has yet to see this season.
If I had to venture a wild guess, it might not be completely out of the question to see Tre'Von Willis - sore shoulder and all - cover Johnson for a good portion of the night. Given his height and length, Willis might be able to stay in his face better than any of the Rebels' perimeter guys. That said, on to the three big predictions for the night.
1) Picks to click ... I'm going with Tre'Von. Miech is taking Wink Adams.
2) Darris Santee may be better suited for tonight's game than Brice Massamba or Beas Hamga Going up against an experienced 7-footer in Kareem Cooper, he has the best combination of size and experience out of the UNLV posts. Him staying out of foul trouble will be key.
3) UNLV 66, UTEP 61.
Talk to you after tip-off.