Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009 | 12:36 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporters Rob Miech and Ray Brewer discuss the UNLV basketball team's season opening victory against Pittsburg State.
If they thought it was long, imagine how the Gorillas of Pitt State felt after losing, 91-52, before 14,304 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Division-II squad based in Pittsburg, Kan., lost to top-ranked Kansas by 58 points and Kansas State by 36 over the past week.
“When you get beat that bad you don’t think of the referees,” said veteran Pitt State coach Gene Iba, nephew of the late great Henry “Hank” Iba, of the game that featured 80 free throws.
The 68-year-old Iba started coaching in 1964 and will retire at the end of this season.
“It was 21-21 when the bottom fell out,” Iba said. “I thought Lon’s kids played really well. We played three really good Division-I teams in the past week.”
UNLV coach Lon Kruger improved to 5-1 in season openers for the Rebels, and it was his 500th victory as a head coach. Sixty-nine of those came during a rough stretch with the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA.
But numbers aren’t very significant to Kruger.
“It’s the first one this year,” he said.
Like they did against Division-II Washburn in their exhibition on Tuesday, the Rebels had a sluggish start Saturday – this time, though, it didn’t take 35 minutes for them to get it together.
It took about 12 1/2 minutes for UNLV to take the lead for good, at 21-19, on two free throws by freshman guard Anthony Marshall.
The Rebels kept a full-court press on that eventually wore down the Gorillas, and a senior walk-on transfer that once played with Kevin Kruger at Arizona State made a mark in his first UNLV game.
Steve “Chopper” Jones canned a 3-pointer from the right side that doubled UNLV’s pad, to 25-19, and started the Rebels running.
A possession later he sank a free throw, and he sliced in for a strong left-handed layin on the left side, squeezing by two Gorillas, for a 41-24 lead near the end of the half.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” Jones told a television reporter afterward. “It’s my fifth year. When my number’s called … it felt great to be out there.”
Three minutes into the game, Jones was the first Rebel called off the bench by Kruger, but Jones shunned “walk-on” or “sixth man” labels.
“Just call me Chopper,” he said.
Early in the second half, it looked like it would only get tougher for the Gorillas when point guard Andy Smith drifted on offense.
“What the hell are you running?!” Iba barked. Later JaVon McGee zipped a pass to a teammate on the left wing that had moved a moment earlier, and the ball nearly hit Iba.
Even when UNLV held a 72-36 lead with about nine minutes left, and it looked like it might score in triple figures for the third time under Kruger, the Rebels were concentrating on defense.
Willis, who had a game-high 17 points and sank all seven of his free-throw attempts, said the Rebels’ strong defensive effort should pay dividends.
UNLV turned 28 Pitt State turnovers into 39 points. Kruger also liked that the Rebels had 19 assists on their 24 baskets.
For the record, freshman guard Justin Hawkins clinched the record-setting free-throw performance when he launched the 51st and 52nd of the game for the Rebels.
He made both, giving UNLV an 89-47 lead with 3:20 left. Its previous high mark for shots from the line was 51, against Wyoming on March 3, 2001.
“It was pretty crazy,” said junior guard Kendall Wallace.
Wallace extended a hot few weeks of 3-point shooting in practice by drilling four of his five long-range attempts and finishing with 16 points. He had four double-digit scoring games last season.
“Teammates made extra passes, and I was wide open,” Wallace said. “This is definitely a confidence builder. We practiced hard for a few days and played with confidence, that’s really what it came down to.”