Sunday, Feb. 6, 1977 | midnight
PHILADEPHIA- It may have been UNLV’S most impressive performance of the season.
Not that the Rebels actually played that well but, playing their fourth game on the road in nine days, they still had enough left Saturday afternoon to come back from a 14-point deficit to defeat a talented Rutgers University team, 89-88.
Senior guard Robert Smith, cool and poised in the pressure-packed final minutes of a see-saw struggle, made most of the clutch play to rally UNLV after the Rebels had almost thrown the game away with turnovers.
It was Smith’s jumper from the top of the key with 1- seconds left that won the game, UNLV’S second victory in the three games that counted on this trip. The other win, over Bradley, was also by open point and it was Smith who scored the winning points in that game, hitting two free throws with five seconds remaining.
The victory, in front of 7,506 fans in the 18,516-seat Spectrum, upped the Rebels’ season record to 18-2 (Rutgers dropped to 12-6) and sends them home where they have won 54 in a row. They play Denver Thursday night and then meet their toughest opposition of the season, Louisville, Saturday night.
With nine seconds left Saturday, the Scarlet Knights, after a time out, had plenty of time to set up a game-winning shot but UNLV put on the pressure and kept Rutgers from getting the ball downcourt quickly. Finally, Dan Hefele was forced to take a 20-foot jumper under pressure that missed badly and Reggie Theus grabbed the rebound just before the buzzer.
That capped a wild final four minutes in which the lead changed hands five times and the score was tied once.
UNLV, trailing by two with four minutes left, appeared to put the game away when it reeled off six unanswered points for a four-point margin with under three minutes remaining. Eddie Owens scored twice on a jumper and driving layup and Robert Smith hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 85-81.
Then, Hefele scored from the circle and, on the inbounds play, Theus threw the ball right to Rutgers’ Eddie Jordan under the UNLV basket. He scored and was fouled. His three-point play put the Knights back in front with 2:35 to go and, as expected, they came out in a stall after a timeout.
Owens put the Rebels back ahead when he batted away a pass and raced in untouched for a layup but Jordan, a senior who will doubtless go high in the NBA draft then drove right down the key and scored on a short bank to give Rutgers the lead at 88-87 with under a minute left to play.
UNLV then came downcourt and worked the ball around, hoping for a good percentage shot against the Scarlet Knights’ tough 3-2 zone. Robert Smith had a man right in front of him when he finally went up for his favorite shot from his favorite spot.
Prior to those heroics, Robert was also a central figure in UNLV’S remarkable comeback from what looked like certain defeat.
UNLV ahead by only two (46-44) at the half, was tied, 54-55, when the Scarlet Knights appeared to put the game away with a 15-1 spurt. Jordan, who scored 24 points, 15 in the second half, and 6-9 sophomore center James Bailey, who scored a game-high 29, were the key players during the run, when UNLV uncharacteristically threw the ball away time and again.
Rutgers scored 13 points in a row before UNLV got its only point on a technical foul free throw by Owens.
When it was over, UNLV had not been playing its usual full court pressing defense, head coach Jerry Tarkanian fearing that his players would wear out. Now desperate, Tarkanian told his team to put it on and the Rebs went on one of their patented blitzes to get back in the game.
Looking like the nation’s third-ranked team for one of the few times this trip, UNLV forced one turnover after another and ran off a 14-4 spurt to cut Rutgers’ lead to 73-71 with 8:32 remaining.
It was Sam Smith who was mainly responsible for the surge, scoring six of the points and making a key steal during the streak. He got the final points of the run on a 22-foot jumper after Larry Moffett had intercepted a pass.
Rutgers held onto the lead a while longer but couldn’t move ahead by more than four points. That was the lead when Moffett, who had shut off Bailey during the crucial rally, fouled out.
That was when Robert Smith, who had two baskets in the earlier run, took over. He came up with a turnover on an inbounds play and drove the baseline to score on a layup and stole the next inbounds pass to drive into the key for another layup. Rutgers’ finally got the ball inbound but UNLV’s defense forced a poor shot and Glen Gondrezick came up and hit a fast break jumper from 16-feet to put the Reels in front fro the first time since early in the second half, 79-77.
Sudden Sam, who started for the first time since early in the year, turned in an all-around strong game and finished with 16 points, the same as Robert Smith. Owens led the Rebels with 20.
Moffett, Gondo and Owens led a strong comeback on the boards in the second half that gave UNLV an eventual 34-31 lead, the first time the Rebels have outrebounded a foe on the trip. It was critical late in the game when Rutgers’ outside shooting was off.
Gondo also turned in a superlative defensive job on the Knights’ hottest player going in Hollis Copland. Copeland, who was averaging 16.2 points and had average over 20 points and 20 rebounds in his last four games, scored only six against UNLV, had only four rebounds and was in foul trouble most of the second half.
Both teams shot well from the field and foul line. UNLV finished at 50 percent from the field and Rutgers 51. The Rebels needed all of its 54 percent effort in the first half to say close with the Knights, who hit 55 percent, getting most of their points in close from Bailey and Jordan. The biggest lead by either team in the first half was four points. The score in the first 20 minutes was tied 11 times and the lead changed hands 10 times.
UNLV, as has been typical of this trip, ended up with seven more field goals then Rutgers, which hit 28 of 31 free throws (90 percent) to the Rebels’ 15-18. The Knights went into the game averaging 62 percent at the foul line.