Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
But even had the senior guard's left knee not gone out on him late in the first half, it's not likely he could have done much to reverse the course that the Rebels were sent down by a firing-on-all-cylinders Illinois team on Friday night in Tulsa, Okla.
For the second straight year, it was one-and-done for UNLV in the NCAA tournament, crashing hard in 73-62 fashion at the BOK Center.
The final score made the landslide look less severe than it actually was, as a blistering first half from the Illini put them up by 22 points at the break and gave them the luxury of cruising into a Sunday match-up with top-seeded Kansas, with a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line.
"We didn't expect it to happen like this," senior swingman Derrick Jasper said from the corner of the Rebels' somber locker room. "We expected to at least give them a game, compete with them a little bit, but it wasn't a game the whole game. It was an (11-point) game at the end, but it really wasn't that close."
The Illini (20-13) started hot, but a 15-0 run midway through the opening stanza gave them all the edge they needed.
In the first 20 minutes, Illinois was a blistering 17-of-27 from the floor, with 10 of those buckets being either dunks or layups against a UNLV defense that simply couldn't apply consistent pressure. The show was orchestrated right from go by the guy who UNLV (24-9) knew it had to try and bother coming in — Demetri McCamey.
"I mean, we came in with the right mindset, but we just didn't slow down the player that we needed to," UNLV sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas said. "McCamey got off and that's pretty much what decided the game."
UNLV, meanwhile, was rushed on the offensive end and never looked comfortable. Mixed into a 7-of-26 performance from the outside were a couple of air-balls from deep and even a corner three off the side of the backboard.
Even though the Rebels had endured lower scoring halves this season, with all things considered, it definitely was their worst 20-minute stretch in the 2010-11 campaign.
For Illinois, it was the type of virtuoso performance that many have known the talented group was capable of the entire season, but Bruce Weber's club simply had trouble pulling it, or anything that even resembled it, off consistently all season.
The Rebels at least gave a strong effort in the second half, but the hole was much too deep to crawl completely out of, and the season ended with a resounding thud, sure to not be forgotten anytime soon.
The unfortunate cherry on top for UNLV was the injury to Willis's left knee, which is the same one he hurt in the middle of the season late in a loss at San Diego State.
"I went out at halftime, started warming up and I kind of knew that it might not agree with me," he said. "I like to think of myself as the leader of this group. The leader always wants to go out swinging and put up a fight. I wasn't able to do that today, and I'm very disappointed right now."
Willis sat at the end of the bench with a blank stare on his face and a towel draped over his shoulders for the game's final 17 minutes, and the sting of the loss could be best measured by the fact that he was pushed to tears for the first time publicly in three seasons at UNLV in the post-game locker room.
"All good things must come to an end," said Willis, who ended his collegiate career as the program's 16th all-time leading scorer. "I just wish I could have at least been out there at the end, in the second half to at least battle with my teammates."
Willis's decorated UNLV run closed with a 1-for-6 shooting performance in 21 painful minutes, including five points and four assists. The Rebels were led by Oscar Bellfield, who scored 14 points, and 13 apiece from Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall, but much of that came during an up-and-down second half with the game already decided.
On the night, UNLV was 21-of-54 from the field — it's first sub-40 percent performance in seven games — and a spotty 7-of-24 from deep.
For Illinois, senior forward Mike Davis was a force for all 39 minutes he was on the floor, tallying 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while McCamey played with incredible purpose, putting away 17 points of his own to go with seven helpers.
Going out the way UNLV did in last year's NCAA tournament, when Northern Iowa pulled off a 69-66 upset with a late Ali Farokhmanesh, was easier for the Rebels to digest than this.
They were again favored to escape their tourney opener and again were left to change their originally scheduled flights home from the Midwest.
"With our size, we're built to out-play teams," Willis continued. "If you out-hustle and out-play them, then you've got to make shots. In the first half, we weren't making any shots, and that's a deadly combination for us."
This brings on an offseason that the Rebels can only hope is less eventful than last year's, which included Willis's off-court troubles and subsequent right knee surgery, Matt Shaw's one-year suspension from the NCAA that ended his UNLV career and Kendall Wallace's torn right ACL in August.
Only Willis and Jasper are not expected to be back, while the Rebels will add in some nice pieces in the forms of highly-skilled and versatile UCLA transfer Mike Moser, 6-foot-6 Canadian forward Grandy Glaze and, after the fall semester, Marquette defector Reggie Smith. Wallace will also be back for a delayed senior season.
UNLV will still be deep and athletic, but Year Eight of the Lon Kruger era will include high expectations, likely some increased pressure for better postseason results and signs that the program's ceiling hasn't been reached under the current regime.
And Year Eight, just like Year Seven, gets started a bit earlier and rougher than expected.
"I'm optimistic," Thomas said. "It hurts now, but eventually we'll be able to look back and say that we learned something from it."