Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009 | 1:16 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporters Rob Miech and Ray Brewer dissect the UNLV basketball team's 78-69 victory on Saturday against Southern Illinois. Tre'Von Willis had a career high 25 points and appears to be the Rebels' team leader.
Against a Southern Illinois program well known for its tenacity, Willis helped the Rebels weather several uppercuts and then turned the Salukis’ aggressiveness against themselves in UNLV’s 78-69 victory.
Willis set the pace with a career-high 25 points, on 8-of-11 shooting and by sinking all seven of his free throws, and he grabbed 7 rebounds and doled out 4 assists in 26 minutes.
More importantly, he set the tone for the Rebels (3-0) with the edge he brings to Tarkanian Court inside the Thomas & Mack Center.
Willis tries to toughen up his teammates as much as he can in practice. That helped the Rebels repel SIU (2-1) after the Salukis opened the game with an 18-6 run and led to the deciding run in the second half.
“We hung around, hung around and kept fighting,” Willis said. “That’s what I love about this team. We’re some fighters. We definitely fight … I really applaud my teammates on fighting and staying in there against a good club.”
SIU coach Chris Lowery noticed that foul trouble limited Willis to only two minutes in the first half, and only 13 minutes for the game, Wednesday against UNR.
“Tre’Von Willis was special,” Lowery said. “He didn’t get to play much against Nevada, and he showed how good he is against us. He attacked the rim, made timely shots and was tough off the bounce.”
Tumbling to the court a few weeks ago with sophomore forward Chace Stanback nearly led to something, but by the end of that practice both Willis and Stanback laughed it off.
Willis has taken plenty of jabs at junior shooter Kendall Wallace, too, in practice. He was just tempering them, Willis said, for when it counts, like Saturday against the Salukis.
“Coach (Lon Kruger) told us coming into the game that they’ll play real tough, hold you and grab you, play real aggressive,” said UNLV junior point guard Derrick Jasper.
“Tre’Von Willis is what we needed. He’s been tough his whole life. I’ve known him his whole life. He’s really tough, and we need that toughness.”
The Salukis built their 18-6 advantage by scoring on six consecutive possessions, the capper coming on a 3-point shot from the left side by junior guard John Freeman.
“SIU is tough, defensively,” Kruger said. “Being up into us early threw us off stride a little. We got more used to it as the game went on. Guys adjusted to it.”
Over the next five minutes, the Rebels adjusted very well and tightened up their own defense.
They rattled off an 18-4 run that was fueled by 3-point shots from Jasper and Wallace on consecutive possessions, sandwiched around two missed free throws by Salukis sophomore forward Anthony Booker.
Willis polished off the explosion with two free throws and a 3-point shot from the left corner for a 24-20 lead with 8 minutes, 52 seconds left.
Most of a crowd of 11,651 roared at the turnaround.
“We took their best shot,” Willis said. “We chipped away and chipped away, and we got after them a little bit like they were disrupting us, trying to get some easy buckets.
“The 3-pointer felt good. The crowd was behind us.”
Still, SIU regrouped to take a 37-34 lead into the half.
“We felt we needed to do something about it,” Willis said of the Rebels at the intermission. “We were not happy about our performance and our energy. We looked at each other and said to get our energy up and get after it.”
The first 10 minutes of the second half resembled a heavyweight prize fight, with UNLV sticking close to SIU and finally taking the lead on a Stanback jumper a bit more than four minutes into it.
It was tied twice, and Willis gave UNLV a 51-48 lead with a 3-pointer from the right side on SIU junior reserve forward Carlton Fay.
The Salukis punched back in a big way by taking a 54-51 lead on back-to-back power dunks by sophomore center Nick Evans.
UNLV junior center Matt Shaw hit a jumper, and when Fay answered with one of his own a sizable portion of the crowd started chanting “S-I-U! S-I-U!”
Willis regained control of the game and the fans with a three-point play – a drive on SIU guard Kevin Dillard in which Willis drove the left lane, collected the foul and sank the free throw – that tied it, 56-56.
“They were kind of playing me as a shooter,” Willis said. “I kept hearing (Lowery) say, ‘Shooter! Shooter.’ I didn’t want to settle for jump shots. I wanted to get into the paint and make plays for others, if they collapsed.
“I got a one-on-one opportunity, and I jabbed (Dillard) right and went left. I protected the ball from the big man on the left side and shielded my body against the guard, and picked up the ‘and-one.’ ”
From the bench two minutes later, Willis marveled over the 3-pointer that Wallace, with John Freeman smothering him, drilled deep from the left corner.
That gave the Rebels the lead, at 59-56, for good for the final 10 minutes.
“He definitely hit a deep ‘three’ with a hand in his face, a fade-away, and it was money,” Willis said. “But Kendall has been big for us. I was cheering, and the whole bench was up getting the crowd back into it.”
The Rebels shot 77.3 percent in the second half, and Lowery was particularly irked about the 13 assists UNLV racked up on its 17 second-half baskets.
Some sloppiness and poor free-throw shooting might have made the finish a nervous one for some UNLV fans, but Lowery had seen his Salukis become discombobulated.
UNLV scoring 10 points off inbound passes told Lowery plenty.
“We had some mental breakdowns and errors,” he said. “They did a good job going at some of the kids who are freshmen. Our young guys made mistakes. They game plan. We did, too.
“The difference is, they were able to carry theirs out for a much longer time than we were.”
The other big difference was the veteran Willis.