Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Alex Adeyanju break down yet another overwhelming performance from UNLV, who improved to 12-1 and advanced to the title game of the Diamond Head Classic after roughing up host Hawaii, 77-53, on Wednesday night. Also, a look ahead to a much-improved foe in Southern Cal who awaits the Rebels on Friday evening, as Lon Kruger's club hopes to wrap up its business trip with a trophy in-hand.
HONOLULU — It didn't take long for UNLV to turn noise into crickets on Wednesday night at the Stan Sheriff Center.
And thanks to relentless pressure on the defensive end, the Rebels made sure that a true road game never felt the part, spanking Hawaii, 77-53, in a semifinal meeting at the Diamond Head Classic.
They'll now prepare for Friday's championship showdown against Southern Cal, who earlier in the day scored an upset by knocking off Saint Mary's, 60-49, which went in the books as the Trojans' fifth win in a row. That game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. PST and will air on ESPN2.
"This was a road game, and I think always when you play on the road it's great to get off to a good start — it changes the whole complexion of the evening," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Even a neutral start kind of keeps the crowd around, keeps the opponent's confidence up, and we got after them pretty early and that was a big key."
Much like they did in Tuesday's 67-53 victory over SMU, UNLV (12-1) overwhelmed its foe with a series of backcourt traps, followed by bodies moving every which way, forcing Hawaii (6-5) to out-think itself time and time again.
It took the Warriors more than six minutes to get on the scoreboard, and even though the Rebels had only registered five points at the time, it was clear who held the upper hand.
By the time halftime arrived, Hawaii had 11 turnovers to only two assists and was 5-of-21 from the floor. UNLV, on the other hand, had fueled its 44-21 lead by out-rebounding the tournament hosts 24-14, had hit six 3-pointers and had eight assists to only three giveaways.
"Coach talked about it before, because they were a great team, and were playing at home," junior forward Matt Shaw said. "They're used to playing here, and we had to make them uncomfortable, so that's what we tried to do."
Added junior guard Derrick Jasper: "Not many teams win here in Hawaii. They've got a real home court advantage. It's a real solid win for us, a total team effort and we're glad to have it."
UNLV's most significant sign of growth and progress, however, came by not letting up in the second half.
The lone black eye on an otherwise stellar performance against SMU came when the Rebels eased off of the gas pedal a tad, allowing the Mustangs to shrink a 28-point deficit down to 12 with just minutes to play on Tuesday night.
The closest Hawaii got after the break was to within 17 points, with the score at 59-42 with 8:14 to play.
"We have to learn that every possession, especially on the road, could potentially change the momentum," Kruger said. "I thought we played the last three minutes today like we want to play the last eight. I thought about from the eight-minute mark to the three-minute mark we were a bit frantic. It was a 20-point ballgame, but still, we were a little frantic and got their crowd involved a couple times because of things we did. We've got to do a better job of staying calm, staying strong and finishing like we did the last three minutes."
Hawaii ultimately found some kind of a pulse on offense, but UNLV never softened its grip significantly as the team continued to force turnovers and aggressively attacked the glass.
UNLV's 18 offensive rebounds were a season high, while the Rebels' two opponents so far in Hawaii have now turned the ball over 40 times.
"They came into the game outrebounding their opponents by about six a game, so we wanted to hit the glass, keep them off of the glass on our offensive end and get some for ourselves offensively," junior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "We made it a goal to send four guys to the offensive glass and everybody to the defensive glass. We won that battle and we're pretty happy about that."
Everyone got in on the act in the rebounding department — literally.
Each of the 11 players to see the floor for UNLV registered at least one board.
Sophomore forward Chace Stanback and Jasper shared top honors with seven boards apiece, while Jasper took down four of his on the offensive end.
Overall, it was one of Jasper's top performances so far as a Rebel, as he also tallied 14 points, three assists, two steals and a block.
Willis came off of the bench for the fourth consecutive game and finished with 12 points in 12 minutes. Sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield — a night removed from foul trouble frustration against SMU — scored 10, including a pair of key first half 3-pointers.
Now comes the fun part — a light day on in terms of workload on Christmas Eve, in one of the nation's most desirable vacation spots.
The team will practice early in the afternoon and have a brief film session, but that's all that's planned. Potential trips to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona were scrapped, as was a possible field trip to watch the Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium, featuring UNR and SMU.
Most plan on laying low before a casual team dinner in front of Waikiki Beach.
"I need the rest, especially," said Willis, who is still nursing a very tender left ankle. "I might just chill at the beach or something."
Added Shaw: "I'm probably going to sleep a lot, maybe go sit on the beach for a bit to relax. That's all I plan on doing."
The rest is in fact much-needed, as the Rebels need to conserve energy to face the physical Trojans.
USC imposed its will on Saint Mary's, one of the nation's highest-scoring teams, and loves to win games that are essentially defensive brawls. They only score 60.3 points per game, while holding opponents to a paltry 55.5. During their current five-game winning streak, USC's opposition is only scoring 48.9 points on average, and no one has totaled more than 55.
Following a wave of controversy under former coach Tim Floyd, first-year leader Kevin O'Neill has his team buying in and executing his brand of ball.
"They're tough," Kruger said. "They're really tough and on a big roll. They beat Tennessee coming into this tournament, had two really tough, good wins the last two days. Kevin's teams always play great, play hard and are well-prepared, so we know how tough that's going to be."