Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 | 5:50 p.m.
Hello from the Thomas & Mack Center, which is full — or about to be. Most of the 18,000 or so fans here really dislike San Diego State University's basketball team, a feeling that coincides with the Aztecs' appearance here to play the UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Several thousand sources report that San Diego State "sucks," but we are still awaiting official verification.
We're keeping up with the action here from behind the hoop on the visitors' end of the court.
Earlier, I met the guy who runs the Findlay Toyota Blimp. He's Darrell Stubbs, and he is a war hero. Not for his work as the Runnin' Rebels' blimp operator over the past three years, but for surviving 11,018 combat missions as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in the mid-to-late-1960s. "I survived to tell you about it," he said about 30 minutes before tip-off. "I am lucky to be alive."
Stubbs and his wife also own American Toxicology, the company that provides and conducts the NCAA-mandated drug tests for UNLV's basketball, baseball and football teams. He is a native Las Vegan — a 1964 graduate of Western High — who has flown more than 17,000 hours as a commercial helicopter pilot after he finished serving with the Army in the Vietnam War.
As for working the blimp, Stubbs only has to worry about the air conditioning that pushes and pulls the aircraft around the arena. Two little motors at the bottom of the blimp, or the gondola, are used to navigate the craft. He works the direction and speed with a device mounted with two toggle sticks. "It's not hard to learn how to do," he says, "but sometimes this thing has a mind of its own."
"Send it into the tuba section," I joke.
"I could do that!" he says.
Stubbs is having a good time here, as San Diego State and UNLV have just tipped off. As he says, "I'm just having some fun, y'know?"
Updated at 6:15: Ellie Smith, one of the city's more coveted national anthem singers, knocked it out of the park (or, rather, slammed it home) with her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." She's a Miss Nevada Teen and a terrific singer. Crowd loved her. Meantime, at the 15:53 mark, the Aztecs are up 9-7. Seated at my right are several hundred San Diego State fans, and they are loud. The UNLV student section is wearing day-glo green and pink shirts, the type of garment you'd wear only if it were given to you free.
Updated at 6:30: A couple of minutes ago, Rebel guard Anthony Marshall dove over the press table after a loose ball and vanished into the first row. One of the media members he nearly wiped out was ex-Michigan and Arizona State coach and current hoops broadcaster Bil Frieder, who is officially Too Old for This.
San Diego State up 21-19, 8:30 to go in the first half.
Updated at 6:35: Aztecs forward Dwayne Polee is listed at 6-foot-7, 195 pounds. He is wiry. If the call rolls under Gucci Row, Polee can reach it.
Updated at 6:40: SDSU's D has forced turnovers on successive possessions and just turned the second into a lay in. Aztecs up 32-21, biggest lead of the game. UNLV coach Dave Rice might call time out here -- bang, there it is. With 5:33 to play in the opening half. Visitors are fired up. Oh, seated to my left on the aisle, is Fox 5 anchor Jason Feinberg.
Updated at 6:41: The assigned crowd rabble-rouser is KLUC 98.5-FM personality Chet Buchanan. If you need someone to conduct a charity auction or fire up 18,000 people, Buchanan is your man.
Updated at 6:50: I am hearing there might be a Harlem Shake happening at some point during the game. That's an Internet sensation that is threatening Psy's "Gangnam Style" as the Dance Craze of the Moment. Harlem Shake is more of a freelance effort. How this happens: The song "Harlem Shake" by Brooklyn electronic artist Baauer is played, randomly, somewhere, and a single dancer moves to the rhythm for about 15 seconds. Then, as the beat shifts, many dancers join in and gyrate and groove to their own freelance choreography. In the days before YouTube, this dance would have died out weeks ago. But here we are, at a college basketball game in Las Vegas, wondering if it will happen. Which it hasn't. Yet.
Meantime, Aztecs holding firmly to a 36-27 lead. MIke Moser layup at 1:35 makes it 36-29, Tip-in by Khem Birch cuts it to 36-31 with 1:13 left. SDSU coach Steve Fischer is complaining bitterly right now, looking like a very riled-up Jimmy Carter, maybe complaining of offensive goal tending or a maddening absence of Harlem Shaking.
Updated at 7 p.m.: A jumper by Winston Shepard puts the Aztecs up 40-35 at the half. There is a dice-tossing game happening as part of the halftime promotion. Bet the come line!
Updated at 7:20: Slammin' start to the second half by the Rebels, taking leads of 42-40 and 44-43. Aztecs now lead 47-44 after two Xavier Thames foul shots.
At the break, I ran into UNLV administrator Jerry Koloskie. I've known the man called "Coach K" for about 17 years now, and I've never seen him in a foul mood. If he is, he never shows it. Great man. One of the best in the city.
The SDSU lead holds at 3 with 15:56 to play.
Updated at 7:20: The Get a Room Cam highlight is the woman holding what seems to be a 2-year-old in her lap while climbing atop her husband for a kiss. At least, we are led to believe it's her husband ...
Updated at 7:25: At the beginning of the season, I talked to quite a few longtime Runnin' Rebel backers -- many of them here tonight -- who believed that this was a UNLV team that could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. It was considered to be a Sweet 16 contender by a lot of these folks. But the Rebels are struggling big time now, as a steal and a dunk by Jamaal Franklin makes it 52-48 with 14:20 left. Craning my neck to see if one of the city's great Runnin' Rebel fans, attorney Frank Schreck, is here tonight. He can't be happy.
Updated at 7:30: Since my most recent visit to the Thomas & Mack, the media center has been named for late Rebel Broadcaster Bob Blum, who died in July at age 91. A favorite Blum moment: Once during a Las Vegas 51s game, costumed members of Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton wandered into the press box after taking part in the game's ceremonial first pitch. Blum looked at one of the guys made up as a Ferengi and said, "Get a haircut." He was classic.
Time out at the 12:38 mark, Aztecs up 54-51.
Updated at 7:34: Sports-radio personality Seat Williams is in the media section. I haven't seen him since he was introducing Mike Tyson at "Undisputed Truth" at the MGM Grand back in April.
Updated at 7:37: It's getting frenzied now. Loose ball at the Aztecs' end results in a half-dozen players splayed on the court. UNLV is up, 57-54, and this is yet another wire job waiting to happen for these Mountain West Conference rivals.
Updated at 7:43: Runnin' Rebels move out to a 62-54 lead at the 8:39 mark. But San Diego State has another run in them. This, you can feel. "We Will Rock You" by Queen is blaring, and that song reminds that Sasha Baron Cohen is playing Freddie Mercury in the film adaptation of his life. That'll be a barn-burner.
Updated at 7:53: Something you don't see often: Anthony Bennett misses a dunk, misses the follow dunk, then jams down a dunk and is fouled. His made free throw makes it 65-57.
Updated at 7:54: It's a din! Din-din time as Birch converts inside, and it's 69-60 with 4 minutes to go.
Updated at 8 p.m.: The Thomas & Mack is a brutal place for visiting teams to play when the place is packed. My ears are burning. Timeout with 3:07 to go, UNLV up 69-62.
Updated at 8:03: Ouch. Chase Tapley just missed two foul shots with two minutes left. UNLV up 70-64. That was huuuge. They were once called free throws, but as some coach once said, there's nothing free about 'em.
Updated at 8:05: Sorry, Chase: After an SDSU stop, Tapley knocks down a 3-pointer. It's 70-67, 1:15 to go ... wire job. Total wire job.
Bennett misses a tough chance inside, but Birch blocks Tapley's driving attempt at a lay-in. Ball lands out of bounds. It's 70-67, UNLV, 39.1 to go.
Updated at 8:11: Crowd is howling. Jamaal Franklin misses a 3-pointer -- great team D by UNLV -- and Bennett rebounds. Big foul shots here ... First one down. Second one rims out. It's 71-67, now 71-70 after a Tapley 3-pointer. Aztec lock up the inbounds pass, and they now have the ball (possession arrow is theirs) with time melting away. Thames travels! UNLV inbounds, it's 71-70. Katin Reinhardt is fouled and misses the first foul shot. Makes the second. Now 72-70, and there is 1.5 seconds to play. Time out SDSU. Boy-howdy, great game. Great. And the theme from "Jaws" plays ...
Updated at 8:12:Bennett breaks up the inbounds pass at midcourt, and that is all. Don't rush the court. It's not that type of win. But it keeps the Rebels alive for an NCAA Tournament berth -- a loss likely would have crippled their hopes -- and makes this sellout crowd happy.