Friday, March 18, 1977 | midnight
PROVO- A funny thing happened on the way to that long-awaited meeting between UNLV and UCLA in basketball. The Bruins decide they didn’t want to show up.
For their part, the Runnin’ Rebels ended two years of frustration against Southern Athletic Conference championship in The West Regional semifinals Thursday night, defeating the University of Utah 88-83 in a nail biter before the crowd of 22,768 at Marriot Center on the Brigham Young University campus.
In the other semifinal, Big Sky champion Idaho State pulled perhaps the biggest shock of the season by knocking off UCLA, the West Regional champions the last 10 years, 76-75.
That sets up a title match here Saturday afternoon between the Rebels and Bengals. That game will be nationally-televised at 2:15 MST (3:15 Las Vegas time). The winner earns a berth in the final round in Atlanta next Saturday.
UNLV just missed meting the Bruins the last two seasons when they were eliminated by WAC champions Arizona State and Arizona on neutral courts.
This time UNLV had to battle a highly-partisan crowd of Utah fans who made the short drive from Salt Lake City to spur on their team. But it was the 4,000 or so Rebel fans who had the last cheer and then sat stunned through the upset of UCLA.
It was UNLV’S 10th consecutive win and the 100th in four years for coach Jerry Tarkanian and seniors Glen Gondrezick, Eddie Owens and Louis Brown. The Rebels are now 27-2 while the Utes ended up at 22-7.
In a game in which the score was tied 12 times and changed hands 27 times, UNLV prevailed behind the cool foul-shooting of Robert Smith and Reggie Theus during a well-executed delay game and a surprising number of turnovers and missed free throws by the Utes.
The most surprising miss of all was by Utah’s senior guard Jeff Jonas, one of the nation’s top percentage foul-shooters. He missed the first of a one-and-one with four minutes and UNLV up by a point. Utah’s Buster Matheney rebounded the missed free throw in the lane but Rebel Tony Smith, who provided several clutch plays in relief reached in and stole the ball.
Tarkanian immediately sent his team into the delay game. Owens hit two free throws to make it a three-point game, 76-73, at the 3:33 mark and Theus and Robert Smith then scored the next 12 Rebel points.
Robert scored eight points, getting passes from Theus and Tony Smith for two layups. UNLV needed them all because the Utes weren’t missing when they had the ball.
Jeff Judkins, who had a game-high 23 points, hit two jumpers in a row to keep the Rebels’ lead at one.
Utah’s Earl Williams, who had 14 of 18 points in the second half, scored in the key to make it a one-point UNLV lead with 1:49 left, 80-79.
Tony Smith then fed Robert underneath for a layup and Judkins finally missed. Theus rebounded and was fouled. He calmly sank both free throws with 1:09 remaining to make it a five-point margin.
The Utes twice more came within three but each time Robert Smith was fouled and the nation’s leading free-throw shooter did not miss.
“I knew if we got behind and they got the ball, they’d go to their delay game,” Tarkanian said later. “It was just a matter of who did first. The important thing was when we went to the delay game, we got good layups and when we had to hit the free throws we hit the free throws.
“We’ve used it a lot, “ Tarkanian said of his delay game. “So far it’s been effective. It’s worked for us every game.”
Utah coach Jerry Pimm agreed with Tarkanian.
“If we had gotten the little three point lead, we would have got the delay game in,” Pimm said. “They beat us a at the same thing we would have done to them.”
Pimm said the difference between this game and the one last December in Salt Lake City, where the Utes won 100-96, was turnovers.
“We had 16 at Salk Lake. We had 24 here. We shot 52 percent, which is under our percentage,” Pimm said.
UNLV forced the 24 turnovers without the use of its vaunted fullcourt defense. Because of the altitude, Tarkanian wanted to conserve his players’ energy and decided to start the press at three-quarter court.
The result was that Utah controlled the tempo most of the way. But Pimm only used six players most of the game against UNLV’s eight. Tarkanian substituted liberally and the Utah coach admitted later it might have hurt his club.
“I’m sure fatigue had something to do with missing the free throws and turnovers too,” Pimm said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t normally beat ourselves with turnovers. We turned it over a few times on our own and a few times because of the UNLV defense.”
Jonas, the Utah floor leader, and normally a sure ball hander was pressured into six turnovers by Robert Smith who won a clear cut decision in the lightweight division.
Jonas, a 53 percent shooter from the field, was only three of 11 from the floor, missed the front end of two crucial one-and-ones and a technical. He finished with 12 points and a game-high 15 assists while playing all 40 minutes.
Robert, taking advantage of the fact that he had, for one of the few times in his career, an opponent his own size, hit eight of 14 from the field and was five of five at the foul line for 21 points. He also had six assists in his 31 minutes and did not commit a turnover The Rebels had 17 in the game.
The game was neck-and-neck from the opening tipoff, mostly due to UNLV’s 43 percent shooting from the field and Judkins getting loose time and again underneath for uncontested layups in the first half.
The Utes had 19 field goals in the opening stanza and 14 were either layups or follow shots.
Judkins had 13 points at the half, made four field goals on back door plays and got tow free off the same maneuver. Tarkanian adjusted in the second half and Judkins didn’t get an easy bucket the rest of the game.
Before the final minutes, the Rebels’ biggest lead was five at 8-3. Utah led by six three times early in the second half after Gondrezick, the victim of Judkins early scoring spree, had sat down his fourth foul.
After Williams had put the Utes on top 57-51, with 14:07 left, the Rebels took advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy play by Utah for their longest run of the game, 8-0. Three of the buckets came after Sam Smith and Owens picked off bad passes and an offensive foul on Matheney.
Mattheney, who had 23 points in the Utes’ earlier win, had only 14 this time to go along with 13 rebound. Larry Moffett led the game with a career-high 17 rebounds, 13 coming in the first half.
Gondo left with 10:02 left on a play that put the Utes up by two but they could not pull away.
Nearing the time when everybody knew one team or another would soon go to the delay game, Utah three times went ahead by one point and each time Owens countered with a field goal. His free throws that made it 76-73 were his seventh and eight points in a row.