Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 | 2:21 a.m.
It came with about 14 minutes remaining in the second half when Willis picked off an inbounds pass and lofted the ball toward the basket. Derrick Jasper sprinted from the right corner and threw the lob down for an exclamation dunk over a Thunderbird defender.
Willis immediately ran toward Jasper to celebrate, while the rest of the Rebels cheered.
“The bench was just so pumped, and we were so pumped that we had to keep the run going,” Willis said. “Whenever you get a play like that and a boost like that, it’s definitely a positive for us.”
The play came in the middle of a 23-6 run at the beginning of the second half that helped the Rebels recover from a lackadaisical opening 20 minutes. UNLV trailed for much of the first half and went into the locker room with just a 31-30 lead.
But UNLV looked like a different team in the second half, largely because of Willis. The junior guard, who did not start for the first time this season, had 16 points, four assists and four steals.
“I wanted to come in and be aggressive and set the tempo,” Willis said. “I wanted to pick my teammates up and try to take it away.”
In addition to his offensive highlights, Willis was at the forefront of a ramped-up defensive effort in the second half.
The Rebels started using full-court pressure and it clearly annoyed the Thunderbirds. Southern Utah finished with 25 turnovers and UNLV scored 28 points off of them.
Sophomore forward Chace Stanback benefited the most from the Rebels transition offense and scored 15 points.
“I’m starting to get into a rhythm now,” Stanback said. “I’m shooting the ball before and after practice. Coach told me to work on it and I’ve been working on it. It’s starting to fall for me now.”
Stanback was perhaps the only positive for the Rebels in the first half. The Rebels trailed by four for a while, but Stanback made sure the deficit was never more than that.
He scored 10 points in the half and hit two 3-point shots right before halftime that gave the Rebels the lead.
It was the second straight game Stanback has scored the second-most points for the Rebels.
“Chace shot the ball well,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “He’s regained his confidence. That’s great. We need him to be able to work for us.”
Despite Stanback’s performance, UNLV went into halftime aggravated. Kruger and the players talked about taking better care of the ball, choosing better shots and bearing down on defense.
Then, junior guard Kendall Wallace hit a 3-point shot to start the Rebels’ run. Southern Utah had no answer.
“We wore them down a little bit,” Kruger said. “More went our way the second half.”
Willis said he was proud of the team’s performance in the second half and happy to improve to 8-1. Still, he knows the Rebels have a long way to go.
“We’re just trying to keep it rolling and put 40 minutes together,” Willis said.