Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Dec. 31, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun reporters Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer break down the UNLV basketball team's blowout victory against Central Michigan. They also look ahead to the start of Mountain West Conference play next week, when No. 16 BYU rolls into town for a highly-anticipated opener.
As expected, after a nine-day layoff and the holiday break, the Rebels were a bit sluggish and lacked energy for a generous portion of the night.
Not expected, though, was reserve guard Justin Hawkins being the guy who ultimately woke everyone up.
The sophomore truly earned his playing time with exceptional effort and presence on both ends of the floor, tying a career best with 13 points alongside four rebounds and three steals in 25 minutes. Mixed in were several hustle plays that lifted the entire team and sparked a crowd of 13,157 that was waiting for a reason to get excited for much of the evening.
"You could tell everyone wasn't really there tonight," Hawkins said of his team's lack of early fire. "I took it upon myself. Anthony (Marshall) told me, you know, it's time for me to bring the energy.
"It's a little disappointing. We kinda felt it going into the game that we weren't really there all together. We felt like we were a little slow throughout the game."
It was hard to blame UNLV for looking a bit out of sorts, though.
The Rebels (12-2) had just enjoyed their longest stretch without a game to this point in the hectic season, and welcomed in a struggling CMU club that looked the part right from the opening tip.
UNLV established itself with strong defense early and often, as per usual, feasting on an opposing backcourt without a reliable, stabling presence. By halftime, the Rebels had forced 17 turnovers, but needed a late six-point spurt from Tre'Von Willis to take a 13-point lead into the break.
Late in the first half, despite UNLV's clear physical dominance, the lead shrunk to as small as four points.
"We're not giving up points early, but we're not scoring many either," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "A little rustiness showed, but they got into it a little bit, activity picked up as the game went along, guys started making plays for each other."
The stretch that broke CMU for good began when UNLV led just 38-31 with 14:47 to play, following a layup by Trey Zeigler — the Chips' stud freshman guard. Over the next eight minutes, UNLV ripped off a 26-4 run. It included 10 points from Hawkins coming in a variety of ways.
"I can't even remember the last time I had a good game offensively," said Hawkins, who this season has been UNLV's resident do-it-all glue guy off of the bench. "All of my teammates just said keep coming, do what you do and it'll come to you."
Hawkins' success didn't set off a litany of offensive bursts from his teammates, but it got everyone working together with more of a flow, which has been a nagging issue for UNLV of late despite winning its last three games.
Willis scored a team-high 15, including 11 in the first half, while Oscar Bellfield ended the night with 11 of his own, largely thanks to three late, momentum-building treys.
On the night, UNLV shot 47.1 percent (24-of-51) from the floor, forced 24 CMU turnovers and turned them into 31 points on the other end.
One lingering issue that was talked about quite a bit after the game, though, is the continued shooting slump of junior forward Chace Stanback. After hitting only 13 of 39 shots and five of 17 from three in the four games leading up to the Christmas hiatus, he was just 1-of-5 from the floor on Thursday, scoring four points in 28 minutes.
While a monster offensive night wasn't necessarily needed from the 6-foot-8 sharpshooter, he was hoping to get back on track leading into conference play, and his frustration was visible. After once mid-range miss late in the first half, he rolled his eyes, looked up to the ceiling on his way back up the court and shrugged his shoulders.
No one is expecting Stanback to be as hot as he was while garnering MVP honors at the 76 Classic in Anaheim back over Thanksgiving weekend every time out, but it was proven back then that the entire offense just seems to flow better when he's hitting shots at a more consistent rate.
Despite looking a little limited of late, Stanback has denied any insinuations that he's dealing with physical issues and says it's simply a mental deal.
"Chace is feeling good. He's been shooting the ball really well in practice; he didn't get many good looks tonight, but I really like the way he's been looking in practice," Kruger said. "He'll bounce back."
Added Willis: "Chace is fine. Chace is gonna come around. We definitely need him at all times, and he's always gonna be there for us. Sometimes he's not gonna shoot the ball particularly well, but that's our guy. We believe in him the whole way, and we'll keep believing in him, giving him the ball and telling him to shoot it."
The night wasn't all bad for Stanback, who had four rebounds, three steals and two assists on his stat line.
The biggest reason UNLV needs Stanback — and some others — to shake the recent offensive troubles is that Mountain West Conference play is next on the agenda, and it opens in a big way.
The Rebels host No. 16 BYU (13-1) at the Mack next Wednesday night in what is annually the team's most anticipated home game.
UNLV hasn't lost on its floor to its bitter rival since Kruger's first season in 2005 and always seems to play its best ball when the Cougars make a visit.
If there's a night coming when it all clicks again for the Rebels, they seem to feel as if that could be it.
"I always think it's fun playing against BYU, home or away," said Willis. "We know how they play, they know how we play. It's all about who executes best."
• In his first start of the season, junior forward Brice Massamba had his poorest outing. He went without a point or a rebound before fouling out in 10 minutes of run. On the other hand, though, the guy who Kruger and the staff hopes would benefit from a reserve role — sophomore Quintrell Thomas — was strong and seemed to play a little looser while not worrying about early foul trouble. He played 17 minutes off of the bench, finishing with eight points and eight boards.
• CMU's Trey Zeigler, who was one of the nation's most highly-touted recruits coming out of high school a year ago and decided to play for his dad in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., had an up and down night. The 6-foot-5 combo guard scored a game-high 16 points and grabbed five rebounds. However, he was just 5-of-16 from the floor and committed an unsightly seven turnovers.