Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 | 7:03 p.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer break down UNLV's 88-74 whipping of No. 12 BYU on Saturday afternoon at the Mack to pull even with the Cougars atop the Mountain West Conference standings. The guys give you the key points from the Rebels' 19th win of the season, plus handicap the race for the league's regular season title moving forward.
Shot after shot went in, the margin grew wider by the second and the number of fans in disbelief grew rapidly.
Few — if any — of the 18,557 in attendance on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center, however, could quantify how blistering hot the Rebels were in the first half quite like former UNLV All-American Larry Johnson.
"No, we never shot it like that," said Johnson, who led the Rebels to the 1990 NCAA championship and was seated behind the UNLV bench with former coach Jerry Tarkanian. "They shot the lights out."
A blazing-yet-efficient first half set UNLV up for what was pretty much an inconsequential second half in an 88-74 victory over No. 12 BYU, marking the seventh consecutive victory for the Rebels on their home floor over the Cougars.
UNLV (19-4 overall, 7-2 Mountain West) in the process tied itself with BYU (22-3, 7-2) atop the league standings and may very well vault back into the Top 25 polls come Monday.
"We got on a bit of a roll there where you're just making shots and the margin just kind of happens," Kruger said.
The margin was as large as 29 points in the first half, and by the time BYU could stop and breathe after 20 minutes of action, Dave Rose's team trailed 56-34.
It was one of those freak instances where seemingly no one could miss, no matter who touched the ball. At halftime, UNLV was 20-of-31 from the floor, including a 9-of-13 showing from long range.
But no one put a stamp on the game quite like Tre'Von Willis, who in a 77-73 loss in Provo on Jan. 6 scored a game-high 24 points but committed seven turnovers, including several which led to a late game collapse for UNLV.
He hit two quick 3-pointers, and by using a variety of moves combined with great feel and pace in a frenzied environment, the Rebels' star junior had 21 points by halftime.
"That was a pretty efficient 21," Kruger said of Willis's 6-of-9 first half shooting. "It didn't even look like he had the ball that much and he got 21."
Willis finished with a career-high 33 points, besting his previous mark of 30 which was set just two Saturdays ago in a 79-70 win at TCU.
The stat Willis may have taken the most pride in, though, was his eight assists compared to zero turnovers.
"Tre's got a high pride level, very competitive," Kruger said. "When things don't work out once, he's going to come back and battle again. That's the great thing about him."
Another victim of Willis's payback warpath was BYU star guard Jimmer Fredette, who once again couldn't find a way to impose his will on UNLV.
Fredette finished with a nice stat line, which included 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but hardly any of it held any weight, as he was guarded heavily by a gang of Rebels — including Willis — and was forced to take bad shot after bad shot. Most of his points came after UNLV had already built a comfortable double-digit edge.
He entered the game shooting 47.4 percent from the floor this season but was just 4-of-15 on Saturday.
The difference in showings between Willis and Fredette also may have tightened the race even more for Player of the Year honors in the MWC.
"I like to play against the best players," Willis said. "I wanted to take on the fight and make him work as hard as he could to earn his buckets and whatever that meant. It was a team effort. All the guards did a good job on him."
Added guard Oscar Bellfield: "It's a great feeling when we threw different players at him and tried to get him exhausted. He still got his, but we contained him pretty well."
The team effort was something everyone was wanting to talk about after the game.
It may sound like a cliché topic, but it was the finest example UNLV had shown all season in not just playing with good effort across the board, but with a collective chip-on-the-shoulder attitude at the same time.
Stanback violently ripped down several of his career-high 14 rebounds. Willis was more than willing to put a paw on Fredette or in his face almost every time the two squared off. Shaw maintained a steely facial expression after each of his crowd-charging threes went in.
Those were just a few examples.
"It's contagious," Willis said. "When one guy, two guys, three guys, four guys grows into five guys and the bench, you've got the eye of the tiger and you're ready to compete and take on fights. It's pretty tough to beat.
"It's pretty hard for a team to contain that when you bring so much energy."
Bellfield chalked that team-wide nastiness up to the progression he feels the team has made throughout conference play.
Finding that mental rhythm couldn't have come at a better time for the Rebels, as they'll host the other team that has a share of the three-way tie atop the league standings — No. 15 New Mexico (21-3, 7-2) — in an 8 p.m. tilt.
The Lobos earned their way into the logjam on Saturday by outlasting San Diego State (15-6, 5-4) in overtime down in Albuquerque, 88-86. The Rebels will see the Aztecs next Saturday in San Diego.
Is it fair to expect the Rebels to catch fire across the board like they did on Saturday afternoon? Probably not.
But UNLV having the same hardened mental approach is a different story.
"The Mountain West is a good league. You can't take nights off, and we're starting to learn that," Willis said. "We knew all week long that the stakes are high. We knew we had a tough one in Wyoming and a tough one today.
"It pays off to see us tied for first, but we know our duties are not over."