Sam Morris / l
Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
Instead of sending waves of guards at it from the wing, the plan was to fight height with height.
The Rebels picked up right where they left off in their win last Tuesday at Wyoming, finding the flow on offense by working inside-out. The result this time was a career night for sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas, an inspired effort off of the bench from freshman back-up Carlos Lopez and a third consecutive win in Mountain West Conference play.
UNLV reached the midway point in its league slate on Wednesday night by knocking off Utah, 67-54, at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Thomas notched his first collegiate double-double with career highs in points (15) and rebounds (16) in only 21 minutes. The 16 caroms were the most by a UNLV player since Lou Amundson took down 21 in the 2005-06 season.
Meanwhile, Lopez had a career-best 14 points to go with nine rebounds in 18 minutes off of the bench.
"I think we realized when we played Wyoming that the offense runs really well when we move the ball inside-out," Thomas said. "We can see it coming together right now. I definitely think that's something we'll build on during the year, and we're playing well right now doing that."
Lopez and Thomas both went at Utah's twin towers — 7-foot-3 David Foster and 7-foot Jason Washburn — without feat. Thomas hit a soft jumper over Foster's outstretched hand in the opening minute, and by the time he sat down four minutes into the game, already had seven points and five rebounds.
The approach, as it did in Laramie a week ago, opened things up for the Rebels' perimeter guys. On Wednesday night, the outside shots weren't falling, but it was clear that the team found a nice flow on that end of the floor.
UNLV (17-5 overall, 5-3 Mountain West) shot just 36.9 percent from the floor, but keeping it from being an issue was another strong defensive effort. Nothing came easy for Utah (10-12, 3-5), which shot a paltry 29.8 percent, had only five assists and committed 17 turnovers.
The story of the night, though, was the incredible showing by UNLV's two-headed monster inside.
Missing from the rotation was junior Brice Massamba, who was battling the flu. He sat on the bench in warm-ups during the first half and offered his services up to coach Lon Kruger in case the bigs got in foul trouble, but he never played. After the break, he stayed back in the locker room.
"I think Carlos and Quintrell are getting more things done when we throw it in there," Kruger said. "We need the ball to whoever's going to get good results for us. When guys are getting good results, they'll get it more."
The extra looks for Thomas and Lopez are the result of added work by both.
For Thomas, his first season as a Rebel after transferring from Kansas and red-shirting the 2009-10 campaign has been equal parts frustrating and satisfying to this point.
He started the team's first 13 games, and when the Rebels were peaking for the first time in late November and early December, he had some big games. But as time works on, he admits, he became a bit complacent with his role and ultimately paid for it.
"Every player goes through a little bit of adversity. It felt like it would never end, but I'm glad that little streak is over," he said. "I wasn't defending the pick-and-roll really well, and that's one of our primary defensive strategies. I had to read the ball screens. And I just got comfortable, and I can probably say that myself."
Mix in a knack for getting into quick foul trouble, and Thomas fell to third in the center rotation. He played sparsely in UNLV's first four conference games, and his growing frustration showed on his face.
Things have turned, though, and Thomas is playing like — and most importantly rebounding like — the guy UNLV knew it was getting when he came to town 18 months ago. In the last two games, he's totaled 41 minutes, 25 points and 23 rebounds. In those minutes, he's only been whistled for four fouls.
"I transferred here to play," Thomas said. "(The struggles) kind of got in my head a little bit, but I worked hard and got myself back in the lineup."
Lopez's struggles in the early portion of the season were mostly on the offensive end, as it took a while for him to look comfortable and confident with the basketball in his hands.
His 14 points on Wednesday came in a variety of ways, including finishes at the bucket, power drives and even a pair of mid-range jumpers. His highlight was a complex, multi-step move executed against Washburn that made several jaws among the 11,842 in attendance drop.
"The main thing is just being patient, getting lower and don't rush your game," Lopez said. "These eight days off really paid off. Last week, me, (Quintrell) and Brice were working out every day, trying to get our confidence up, really working hard. Finally, it paid off."
Kruger credited assistant coach Lew Hill, who works regularly with the team's post players, for that added confidence coming in. But both Thomas and Lopez seemed to feed off of their own success and play with more of an edge as their numbers piled up.
The only thing fans were left wanting was a 10th rebound for Lopez, who tried his hardest in the game's final five minutes to record his second double-double of the year. He glanced up a few times at the stats on the end zone scoreboards, then shook his head when he was pulled in the game's final minute just one digit shy.
"I was really upset," he said with a grin. "I was working really hard, Chace (Stanback) took my two rebounds, but that's OK. I will take care of that later."
Stanback was UNLV's only other scorer in double figures, finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
The Rebels' guards didn't even record a point until there were seven minutes left in the first half when Tre'Von Willis dropped in a short jumper. Willis, Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield were a combined 5-of-25 from the floor and 0-for-7 from long range, but for the most part weren't leaned on after UNLV's lead grew in the early minutes.
They'll likely be needed more on both ends come Saturday, though, when the Rebels head on the road again for a highly-anticipated rematch with BYU up in Provo, Utah.
The Cougars escaped the same sleepy atmosphere UNLV did a week ago at Wyoming on Wednesday night, slipping by the Cowboys, 69-62.
In the four weeks since the two rivals first squared off, BYU senior guard Jimmer Fredette has become the nation's most popular player with offensive explosion after offensive explosion.
He's become a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate, and in eight MWC games is averaging a ridiculous 34.4 points per game. BYU (21-2, 7-1) has only struggled when those around him haven't offered enough offensive support.
They were all hitting on Jan. 5, when Fredette scored 39 and exorcised his demons at the Mack in an 89-77 victory over UNLV.
Whether the Rebels go inside-out against the Cougars is yet to be determined, but whatever UNLV does, it will do so knowing that a win could put the Rebels squarely back in contention for a Mountain West regular season crown.
"They came in here and they shot the lights out. We should never lose a home game, in my opinion," Thomas said. "We need to go there and take care of business. You lose one at home, you have to make it up on the road."