Monday, March 11, 1991 | 2 a.m.
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Like a snowball rolling down the hill, UNLV’s Big West Conference tournament weekend picked up speed until it avalanched Fresno State in the second half Sunday afternoon.
The Rebels made it 30-0 for 1990-1991 by rumbling past a gritty Bulldogs squad, 98-74, before a near-capacity crowd of 11,045 at the Long Beach Arena. It was the third straight conference tourney title for UNLV and the team’s 40th straight win.
Fresno State, the seventh seed in the tournament, was not given much chance of getting by No.2 New Mexico State, much less No. 1 UNLV.
The only reason it didn’t get by the Rebels was because Anderson Hunt and Larry Johnson hit for 23 and 22 points, respectively. The Bulldogs caught UNLV a bit sluggish at the outset and it wasn’t until the second half the Rebels began to play like everyone expects.
“We were tired and it took us a while to get going,” said Johnson, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “But we said in the huddle to suck it up and play through it.”
That the Rebels did. Especially after Fresno State sprinted to an early 11-2 lead and remained in the game at halftime, 34-33, despite a 20-2 UNLV run over a seven-minute span.
“Nobody hung their heads,” Johnson said. “We weren’t afraid. We just played.”
It took UNLV a while until it was hitting on all cylinders. Friday night, the Rebels found themselves in a race of snails as Cal State Long Beach held the ball all night but still lost by 20, 49-29.
Saturday night, UNLV was again sluggish offensively against UC Santa Barbara. But the Gauchos weren’t any better and once Rebels found their groove midway through the first half, UCSB couldn’t keep up and UNLV coasted in with a 95-67 win.
Fresno State had made it to Sunday’s game riding the hot hands of Dave Barnett, Carl Ray Harris and Tod Bernard. The Bulldogs had upset New Mexico State 88-82 in the first round and ripped Pacific 87-70 to advance to the championship game.
The Bulldogs’ dreams of going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1984 rested on their ability to pull off the year’s biggest upset.
Unfortunately for Gary Colson’s club, it could only play with UNLV for 25 of the required 40 minutes.
But those first 25 minutes Fresno State outshot UNLV, battled UNLV even on the boards and the Bulldogs committed just two turnovers in the first half.
“God what a great first half,” Colson said. “You can’t ask any more than what they gave.”
“Once they went inside to Johnson, they kept going to him and we don’t have anyone who can stop him. I don’t think anyone does.”
“Then we go to help on Johnson and we leave Hunt open and he killed us.”
Hunt, who attempted three three-pointers in the first 30 seconds and missed them all, bounced back. After going 1-for-6 from the three-point arc in the first half, he hit 6 of 8 treys as UNLV pulled away.
“Anderson has the green ligh,” Tarkanian said of Hunt, who was an all-tourney selection along with George Ackles and Stacey Augmon. “We want him to keep shooting.”
Hunt kept firing, Johnson kept working inside and the Rebels keep winning. It becomes a six-game season for UNLV, beginning Friday in Tucson as the West Region’s top seed meets Montana.
“We weren’t quick today,” Tarkanian said. “I thought we got going in the second half when our defensive intensity picked up.”
For the Bulldogs, who finished 14-16, there was no shame in the final outcome.
“We played beyond the call of duty,” Colson said. “Nobody in this arena can fault our players’ effort. It’s been a good year for us even thought I didn’t like the way it ended.”
And for the Rebels, the year is really just beginning starting Friday in Tucson.