Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 | 2:30 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer take a look back on what went down in Provo on Wednesday, as UNLV stumbled against BYU, losing 77-73 in its Mountain West Conference opener. The guys look at what must change for the Rebels before they take on No. 15 New Mexico on Saturday in Albuquerque.
PROVO, Utah — Wednesday night marked the third time in 15 games that UNLV has tasted defeat on the hardwood this season.
But a 77-73 loss at No. 25 BYU in the Rebels' Mountain West Conference opener marked the first time in which Lon Kruger's club fell victim to a late-game collapse, having led by six points with 5:55 to play.
"We were in control most of the game and to let them make a run like that there at the end, not take care of the ball and not execute at the end, it hurts a lot," said UNLV junior guard Kendall Wallace, who scored nine points off of the bench. "This would be a huge win to start the conference, but we have to move on. We can't let this linger after tonight.
"The New Mexico game is that much bigger."
The Rebels (12-3 overall, 0-1 MWC) face the No. 15 Lobos (14-2, 0-1) on Saturday afternoon at The Pit in Albuquerque. And while there is no such thing as a "must-win" situation two games into league play, both teams badly will be wanting to stop recent bleeding. While UNLV has now lost two straight, New Mexico lost its conference opener Tuesday at San Diego State.
If UNLV were to carbon copy the way it played for the first 34 minutes Wednesday when it takes the floor again this weekend, chances are the Rebels will be in a similar position to close out a tight contest.
The Rebels, who trailed by one at the break but shot ahead early in the second half, withstood several runs from the Cougars after the intermission. Each time there was a whiff of BYU (15-1, 1-0) assuming control, the crowd of 15,546 presented UNLV with an overwhelming road atmosphere it had not yet seen this season.
Still, the Rebels refused to flinch. And a layup by junior guard Tre'Von Willis, who led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, gave UNLV the aforementioned 68-62 edge with just under six minutes to go.
All momentum on UNLV's side — especially on the offensive end — then came to an immediate halt. That would end up being the Rebels' final field goal of the evening, and Willis would be credited with three of his seven turnovers during that closing stretch.
None ended up being more costly than one on an inbounds play with 57 seconds remaining and UNLV trailing, 73-71.
Sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield, inbounding from underneath the basket, flipped a pass over the shoulder of Willis up on the left wing. The pass wound up heading toward the sideline, and Willis's sprinting attempt to save it was unsuccessful.
UNLV buckled down one last time on defense, forcing BYU to milk almost the entire shot clock, but Cougar guard Jackson Emery ended up hitting a fall-away 18-foot jumper atop the key under heavy pressure. It put BYU up by four, with the clock no longer working as UNLV's ally.
"I just thought (the BYU defender) was trailing Tre, so I threw it over the top and I thought Tre had a good look at it, but it didn't work out that way," Bellfield said.
"Me and Oscar just weren't on the same page," Willis said of the crucial giveaway.
A win would have covered up a handful of leaks which helped BYU stick around, but instead, a narrow loss merely magnified them.
One glaring flaw was UNLV getting out-rebounded, 44-37, with 19 of those BYU caroms coming on the offensive glass.
"They hurt us on the boards all night," coach Lon Kruger said. "When you do a decent job the first time through, you've got to finish it off with a defensive board. They had way too many second chances. You can't give a good team that many second looks."
A key moving forward for UNLV will be continually forcing opponents to play at its pace, as that was as integral as anything in the Rebels nearly pulling off the upset.
Leading up to Wednesday's game, Kruger and his players emphasized slowing down BYU, which coming in was one of the nation's most efficient fast-break teams.
With star guard Jimmer Fredette still slowed in the aftermath of a bout with strep throat, UNLV stuffed up BYU's offensive attack in the first half, holding the Cougars to 11-of-41 shooting (2-of-10 from 3-point range). The Rebels forced the Cougars to execute on offense almost entirely out of half-court sets, which took Dave Rose's ball club completely out of its comfort zone. BYU had no fast-break points to its credit at halftime and only four on the night.
Similar execution and dictation will be a must for the Rebels again Saturday against the Lobos.
And though the test over the weekend will by no means make or break the Rebels in terms of the race for a league title, Wednesday's flailing finish showed Kruger's club what it will take to win consistently in a tough league this season.
"We had the game, we've got to find a way to win the game," Willis said. "That's the difference between winning the conference and not winning the conference."