Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 | 12:33 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss what again was a tale of two halves for UNLV, as the Rebels used a second half surge keyed by defense and the offensive precision of Tre'Von Willis and Chace Stanback to down San Diego State, 76-66. Plus, a look at a recurring issue for the Rebels and why the team is set up for a nice run coming up.
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For the first 20 minutes, UNLV's Mountain West Conference home opener Wednesday against San Diego State looked like it might go the same way previous games against bigger, athletically stacked opponents have gone this season.
The next 20 minutes made the 14,530 in attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center almost forget about those first 20 completely.
With junior guard Tre'Von Willis and sophomore forward Chace Stanback both catching fire on offense in the second stanza, the Rebels (14-3 overall, 2-1 MWC) erased a six-point halftime deficit and polished off the Aztecs (12-5, 1-2), 76-66.
Stanback scored UNLV's first six points of the second half, while Willis scored 15 of the team's 20 points during one stretch, helping chop away at an imposing opponent. In the end, Stanback scored 18, while Willis tallied 23, giving him 67 points in the team's first three league games.
"I felt like I was hurting my team for a minute," Willis said of his 2-of-5 shooting performance in the first half. "I had to bounce back and make some plays."
Willis's hot streak helped take the Rebels from down 45-43 to up on the sputtering Aztecs, 63-54.
Several of UNLV's offensive opportunities in the second half, however, came as a result of enhanced pressure on the defensive end and urgency on the glass.
At the break, San Diego State led 39-33, had out-rebounded UNLV, 23-16, and had produced 24 points in the paint.
"The second half, we were a lot more aggressive," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "There was not much flow in the first half, and San Diego State did a good job. Second half, we dictated a little more on both ends."
SDSU didn't get shut out on the boards after the half, but UNLV instead kept the Aztecs from letting one possession turn into two as often as it had earlier. On top of that, the Rebels didn't allow several high-percentage looks.
"We kind of smothered that high pick-and-roll they had, and luckily they were missing shots," Willis said of the Aztecs, who were 0-for-9 from 3-point range and 10-of-30 from the floor after the intermission. "And we got a couple of easy opportunities."
The Rebels still were out-rebounded on the night, 44-35, but on top of simply keeping pace with their opponent after the half down low, UNLV found a way to cover up the rebounding woes with more offensive efficiency.
In a 74-62 win Saturday at New Mexico, it was Kendall Wallace's über-hot 3-point shooting which served as the masking agent. Wednesday it was the Willis-Stanback combination.
In the Rebels' last two games the duo has shown just how deadly it ultimately could be as a one-two punch on that end of the floor.
"As long as stay consistent, just stay confident, our shots will fall and teammates will look for us," Stanback said. "We can be real dangerous."
Added Willis: "Chace has really had his confidence lately. He's been driving the ball, trying to make plays, been shooting it well. So, when he plays like that, we're a tough club to beat."
That term — confidence — has been brutally synonymous with Stanback this season when the 6-foot-8 UCLA transfer's potential has been the topic.
When he's confident, everyone around can see it clearly.
As he watched himself get a shooter's roll on an 18-foot baseline jumper that opened the second half scoring, Stanback threw his fist down in celebration.
"I thought Chace at New Mexico on Saturday was as aggressive and confident as he's been, and tonight he came back with another good one," Kruger said. "We need that. We need Chace to continue to be aggressive. Derrick (Jasper) is gonna be there to support as well. The more guys we can have helping Tre and Oscar (Bellfield), that's great."
That competitive juice from Stanback flowed all the way through the second half.
With just 46 seconds left, Stanback tore down a rebound off a Kelvin Davis 3-point miss, and with the Aztecs down by eight and the outcome almost certain, he flexed his muscle once again, swinging around with a sneer on his face as an opponent was draped all over him in a fight for the ball.
The foe wound up flailing away seconds later.
"When I got the rebound, he was all over my back, but I didn't mean to swing him on the floor like that," he said with a smile. "It happened, but no hard feelings.
"You want to try to fight, and coach has been getting on us about rebounds and I wasn't gonna let that one go."
Actually, it was a fitting capper to a second half in which the Rebels exorcised some demons left over from losses earlier this season to Kansas State and Southern Cal, games in which a bigger, physical opponent dictated things for almost the full 40 minutes.
UNLV's perimeter defense held San Diego State to just 22 points outside of the paint. It also helped force 20 Aztec turnovers compared to just eight assists. SDSU didn't do itself any favors, either, by going just 16-of-28 from the free throw line.
On the flip side, UNLV continued to take care of the ball exceptionally well, with sophomore guard Bellfield again keeping the ship steady.
With early foul trouble hindering his scoring, Bellfield still managed 12 points. Even more important, though, were his six assists with only one turnover. Through three conference games, he has now totaled a league-best 22 assists with just five turnovers.
"That's what point guards do," he said. "You can get it to other people and get yours at the same time. If mine's not there, I'm still looking to dish and everything. I'm just trying to make the players around me better."
Still, just because the Rebels went 2-1 to open up the conference season against arguably the three toughest opponents they'll face, it doesn't mean everything is 100 percent peachy.
The average of 15.3 offensive rebounds UNLV is allowing through three Mountain West games has to shrink.
Otherwise, the Rebels will continue to play with fire, starting with a 7 p.m. home date Saturday against Utah.
"When we're giving up that many offensive rebounds and offensive rebounds for points, it can be devastating," Willis said. "That's what kept them in the game. It felt kind of weird, because we knew we were defending and getting stops. We just weren't getting the rebounds.
"We've got to work on that, and that's got to be a main priority now moving forward to Utah."