Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
FRESNO, Calif. -- Even though his team won, there was no way Jerry Tarkanian could have possibly enjoyed himself.
But given the fact he came out on top Monday night, it took the edge off things just a wee bit.
It was as stressful as a college basketball game can get as Tark's former team, UNLV, took his current team, Fresno State, to the limit before the Bulldogs were able to pull away for an emotional and crucial 93-82 WAC Pacific Division victory.
"This was a great ballgame," Tarkanian said. "But I'm glad it's behind us."
The win kept the Bulldogs undefeated in conference play at 4-0 (12-6 overall) while the Rebels dropped their third straight to fall to 11-5, 3-2 in the WAC.
"The game was big for us, not just because it was against UNLV, but we're the two top teams in the division," Tarkanian said. "So it was very important for us to win because it was a league game."
For the Rebels, something good came out of a tough loss. The team regained its intensity and played hard the entire 40 minutes. Had UNLV been able to make some shots down the stretch, the outcome might have been different.
"We've got to make shots to win on the road," said Rebels coach Bill Bayno. "But we defended well and I'm proud of my kids for fighting and scrapping and never giving up."
With an energized sellout crowd of 10,182 at Selland Arena looking for an early knockout, the Bulldogs tried to provide it. FSU built a 15-5 lead just 3 1/2 minutes into the contest and if Bayno's young team was ever going to capitulate, it was at that juncture.
But the Rebels weathered the first 10 minutes, a key to having a chance to win. UNLV actually led 32-28 with 8:23 to go in the half thanks to a 15-4 run keyed by Damian Smith, who regained his shooting touch and would finish with a season-high 20 points.
"Damian was sensational," said Tark, who coached his dad, Tony, in the late 1970s when UNLV went to its first Final Four in 1977. "He's been struggling with his shooting, but he was hot against us.
"When his dad played for me, we used to call him 'TV Tony' because he'd have a big game every time we were on TV. I think Damian gets that from his dad."
But the Rebels couldn't sustain the offensive continuity. With the fouls mounting, Bayno was forced to juggle his lineup. UNLV managed just two field goals over the final eight minutes, was outscored 18-5 by the Bulldogs over the final 7:39 and was trailing 49-39 at intermission.
UNLV hadn't made a field goal since Tyrone Nesby had scored on a baseline slam dunk with 5:50 to go in the half. The field goal drought lasted almost eight minutes until Warren Rosegreen hit a 15-footer with 2:05 gone in the second half.
But the Rebels found the going even tougher as the Bulldogs' lead climbed to 16 early in the second half. And with Rahsaan Smith all of a sudden coming alive offensively, it gave Bayno one more thing to worry about.
The 6-10 center was shut out in the first half but scorched the Rebels for 15 second-half points. He was able to match Keon Clark, which was a big key for Fresno State. Clark was a force at both ends, scoring 16 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking six shots.
And when Clark picked up his fourth foul with just under seven minutes to go and the Rebels trailing 74-68, it appeared the Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to put UNLV away.
Instead, Clark stayed on the floor, the Rebels kept hanging around and it was a one-point game heading into crunch time, 79-78.
"I knew being down 10 at the half it would be tough for us to come back," Bayno said. "But I was wrong. We got some stops and got back in it. If we had been able to make a couple of shots down the stretch, we'd have been right there."
But a Terrance Roberson 3-pointer, another Sunshine Smith turnover (his sixth) and an ensuing hoop by Daymond Forney, who led all scorers with 24 points, and Tarkanian's guys were finally able to put some distance between themselves and the scrappy Rebels.
"Roberson's 3-pointer was big," Bayno said. "It went from one to four, then we turn it over and Forney makes one and now it's six. That was a tough sequence for us."
Yet the Rebels refused to disappear. Mark Dickel cut it to six with a jumper from the left side, and when Dominick Young threw the ball away with just over a minute to go, Sunshine Smith's shot was goaltended and it was a four-point game with 41.3 seconds left.
And it appeared the basketball gods were smiling on UNLV when Kendrick Brooks launched an unnecessary 3-pointer from deep in the right corner 11 seconds later. The ball bounced high off the rim and drew iron on the way down.
A shot taken in that situation has no right going in. But on this night, it dropped, sealing the Rebels' fate and nearly giving the 66-year-old Tarkanian heart failure in the process.
The coach watched in disbelief as Brooks launched it, yelling "No! No!" as the ball went up, then slumping his head in his hands, even though the shot was good.
"I told Kendrick that 'if I had a gun, I would've shot you before you shot the ball,'" Tarkanian said. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
But it was just one more wild sequence on what was a wild and memorable night for both sides.
"I've got a lot of respect for UNLV," Tarkanian said. "They played so hard. They never gave up. Billy's doing a tremendous job there."
Bayno said: "I knew Fresno would come in and be fired up. They're a great team and they're playing well right now. I don't think they'll lose too many more games."