John Miller / AP
Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
Ryan Greene breaks down the key points from UNLV's 74-72 squeaker in double overtime on Wednesday night at Arizona, led by Tre'Von Willis's 25 points and late-game gusto. Plus, a preview of Friday's Rebel Room podcast, featuring a special guest.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Lessons learned.
UNLV coach Lon Kruger said his No. 24 Rebels absorbed plenty of them, no matter the outcome for his squad on Wednesday night at the McKale Center in the team's first road test of the season.
But a dramatic, thrilling, stressful, sometimes ugly, yet ultimately pleasing 74-72 victory in double overtime over Arizona made for a nice bonus when all was said and done, improving UNLV to 6-0 for the first time since 1992.
"You just grow from those opportunities," Kruger said afterward. "When you're on the road, and you accomplish that, without many people here cheering for you, you tend to bind when that happens, and it's one of those you can't get anything out of practice that resembles that, so if you can do it in a game on the road, against a good team, you feel good about that.
"You just can't learn any more than we learned from tonight's game. And to do that and win, it's huge for us."
More than anything, the Rebels learned just how tough they really are in their first road test of the 2009-10 campaign — one which contained 21 lead changes and never saw either side go up by more than six.
In front of a noisy crowd of 13,485, junior guards Kendall Wallace and Tre'Von Willis left the most lasting impressions in a game which took a little bit from almost everyone on the roster to get the job done.
Wallace came up with two major defensive rebounds, a key steal and a 17-foot jumper which were all part of a 5-0 spurt which pulled UNLV even with Arizona (3-3) in the closing minutes of regulation after trailing 52-47.
Meanwhile, Willis provided the fireworks, finishing with a team-high 25 points. Of those, 23 came after halftime, including 11 of UNLV's 20 points scored in the two overtime periods combined. He did it in every way possible, be it short jumpers off the glass or stutter-step drives to the hoop after puzzling scores of Wildcat defenders.
"I got the mentality that whatever it takes for this team to get a win, I'll do it," Willis said afterward. "I was looking around in the game, we were hanging around, hanging around, in a tough environment, and I wanted to make some plays for my team. That's what it came down to. It was a total team effort. Everybody stepped up today at some point in the game and was huge for us. I'm just so proud of my guys right now."
Willis stepped up at just the right time for the Rebels, as a shaky first half performance by both sides saw Arizona on top by five at the half after controlling the game's pace through 20 minutes. Instead of establishing their own flow, the young Wildcats made a point of disrupting UNLV's by equaling the signature defensive intensity of Kruger's club.
The effort for the Cats was led by the squad's lone upperclassman — senior point guard Nic Wise.
"The first 10 or 15 minutes, he was killing us," Willis said. "He made a lot of plays, made some shots, got to the free throw line, drew some fouls on our guys. And we started just trapping him as soon as he came across half court, tried to get that little duck or pick. We just sent our big men at him and made him get the ball out of his hands."
The Rebels never found much offensive flow, and for the entire night had trouble stringing together made shots, but at the same time kept Arizona from doing so by handling Wise. Both teams shot below 40 percent from the floor, and neither club shot over 20 percent from 3-point range for the night.
An early 10-0 run in the second half turned it into an airtight, see-saw battle the rest of the way, and Wallace's late efforts in regulation proved to be the ultimate springboard for the Rebels heading into extra periods.
It came while playing in his home state, where he starred just up the interstate at Mountain View High in Mesa.
"It means a lot. I've been down here in this gym a few times. I've always wanted to play here," Wallace said while meeting with several family members who made the trip down. "I knew I had to come in and bring some energy if I was going to keep playing. I was glad I was able to come in there, make some plays, the team was able to capitalize and get this win."
Wallace remained on the floor for the entirety of both overtimes, as the Wildcats rarely had an open look from the floor after Wise's 3-point miss at the end of regulation, which could have ended the night a tad earlier had it sunk.
"Nic Wise probably got the best look you can get at the end of a game, and once he missed that, we knew we were fortunate and we were going to come out real aggressive, hold nothing back in the first overtime," Willis said.
No one was more aggressive on the offensive end than Willis, who made an example out of Arizona sophomore guard Brendon Lavender repeatedly with tough drives to the hole.
After Willis missed a leaner in traffic at the end of the first overtime which could have won the game, the Rebels' nonstop attacking finally caused Arizona's defense to have a momentary lapse with just over a minute left to play in the second OT.
It ended up costing Arizona the game.
That was when junior Derrick Jasper found space on the left wing and calmly cashed a wide open 3-pointer, giving the Rebels a 70-68 lead they would never relinquish.
"I was real surprised," he said. "I think there was a little bit of miscommunication on their part, and it left me wide open and I just drained it.
"It was real tough. I didn't expect a double-OT game coming in, but you never know what you're going to get playing college basketball. I'm tired. I want to go to sleep. I've got a lot of homework, too."
Jasper finished with a well-rounded stat line, pouring in 12 points to go with seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. Wallace, UNLV's other hero of the night, had eight points, five rebounds and a crucial steal while playing a season-high 26 minutes.
But he wound up in the shadows of Willis, who didn't have the all-around numbers but was firmly in command for UNLV when it mattered the most. That's something Jasper's seen before from Willis, who was a teammate of his long ago during their days playing summer prep ball in California.
"I've seen it many times," Jasper said. "That's how I knew he was gonna deliver for us. That's how I knew we should get him the ball.
"That's our guy. That's our big-shot player. Willis wants the ball in the clutch, and he's gonna deliver for us."
The time for UNLV to celebrate an exhausting victory is minimal, however.
After flying back late Wednesday night, the team heads out of town again on Friday afternoon for Saturday night's contest at Santa Clara, which is 4-3 early on.
In between, on Thursday, will come a humbling reminder — as always — from Kruger to his team that December success only means so much.
But it still means something.
"We like what we've done," Kruger said. "Again, it's early and, again, most importantly, I've said this over and over, we have to get a lot better. I think our guys understand that but, still, if you win and make progress and win and improve, you just can't learn any more than we learned from tonight's game. And to do that and win, it's huge for us."