Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
UNLV at Utah State, 3/1/90
Since this season’s meetings are the first in the series since 1996, it’s easy to forget that Utah State and UNLV used to be a tremendous rivalry. Like they did against most other Big West foes, the Rebels dominated the series to the tune of 27-3 before UNLV’s 62-42 victory earlier this year.
But unlike a lot of other conference opponents, the Aggies almost always challenged the Rebels. At the Smith Spectrum in 1985, the two teams played a triple-overtime thriller with 282 combined points, and the next year at the Thomas & Mack Center the teams went to double overtime.
However, as the Rebels prepare for Saturday’s trip to Utah State — 1 p.m. on CBS Sports Network — it’s another classic game at the Smith Spectrum that comes to mind, though the game play isn’t the main reason. That’s because nearly 24 years ago the Rebels got quite the shock in what’s now known as the Water Bomb game.
Earlier in the season, UNLV’s 31-point home victory boiled over with punches thrown as players were leaving the court. That helped set up a particularly raucous environment for Round Two and spurred a couple of Utah State fans to rig up a surprise for the road team.
“We knew how competitive the game was going to be and how hostile the crowd would be,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who was a junior on that team.
As UNLV prepared to start the second half on March 1, 1990, coach Jerry Tarkanian sat at the end of the bench with an empty seat to his left and then Rice. That’s when an explosion of water burst up through a vent and drenched the Rebels’ bench with dyed water.
“Absolutely soaked,” Rice said. “We didn’t know what it was. This huge amount of water just came spraying out of the water vents. A lot of food coloring and a lot of water.”
The water was allegedly supposed to be Utah State’s shade of blue but came out more teal. It chased the Rebels back to the locker room, where Tarkanian changed from his signature short-sleeved shirt and tie into a sweater.
“I didn’t know what happened,” Tarkanian said after the game. “I just know that this blue water came all over the place. It didn’t really bother us. I think our starters were already on the floor. I thought Utah State did a good job controlling things.”
It’s remarkable to watch the footage and imagine how different things would be if something like a remote-operated water bomb were used today.
“Everyone looked at it as a great prank,” Rice said. “If it happened in 2014, I know they would evacuate the arena and postpone the game.”
Former Rebel Chris Jeter agreed.
“They would shut down the whole arena,” he said. “During that time there wasn’t a lot going on. That was pretty innocent. All it was was payback.”
Jeter and Moses Scurry had to watch the game from Las Vegas because they were suspended for the fight a month earlier. With the animosity level already so high in a close game, it’s actually impressive that nothing happened after the incident.
“I don’t think anyone knew how to react,” Rice said.
When they returned to the court the Rebels were awarded two technical free throws. They sank them both and went on to win the game 84-82.
The two men responsible for the water bomb were summoned to court and charged with “disrupting a meeting or procession.” The distraction didn’t do much to disrupt the Rebels, who finished their national championship run on an 11-game winning streak that started with that game.
It’s unlikely that Saturday’s contest will match the Water Bomb game as far as a memorable moment is concerned. But with the teams back in the same league, people on both sides are just happy to see the series renewed.
“There was a lot of animosity,” said Jeter, “and it was a great rivalry between great, great teams.”