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Despite rough exit last year, Willis welcomes challenge at BYU

Junior guard left Marriott Center last season with scraped shins, but savors return trip Wednesday

UNLV-SUU Basketball

Justin M. Bowen

UNLV guard Tre’Von Willis brings the ball up court on Dec. 15 against Southern Utah at the Centrum Arena in Cedar City, Utah. UNLV dominated the second half and came out with a 77-59 win.

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Tre'Von Willis's exit from Provo following UNLV's 76-70 victory over BYU last season was anything but memorable.

The then-sophomore guard slipped on a patch of ice by the team bus and slid under the vehicle, scraping each of his shins nearly to the bone.

"It was hurting," he said with a grin.

That, however, pretty much was his lone slip-up of the night, as he scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, and had five rebounds and three assists in what turned out to be UNLV's signature win during Mountain West Conference play.

A repeat performance not only might be necessary for UNLV (12-2) to win Wednesday on the road against No. 25 BYU (14-1), but the Rebels will need Willis to rediscover his touch and flow on the offensive end.

The Cougars are enjoying a nine-game winning streak and have scored at least 88 points in each of their last five outings.

Willis, on the other hand, is coming off his worst offensive performance of the season.

In a 67-56 loss to Southern Cal on Christmas Day in Honolulu, Willis not only was bothered by lingering back and ankle pain but also was stymied by the Trojans' suffocating defensive scheme. The team's leading scorer was held to four points on 0-for-6 shooting.

It marked just the second time in his UNLV career that the Fresno native was held without a field goal.

"That was horrible, especially because I couldn't maneuver how I would have liked to and my shot wasn't falling — it was awful," he said. "They did a good job, though. They made you do more than sit there and get a wide open shot or something like that. They made us work. They definitely caught me at the right time."

The bright side for Willis, however, was the impending 11-day layoff for the Rebels between the end of non-conference play and Wednesday's showdown at 7 p.m. in what is sure to be a wild and crazy atmosphere at the Marriott Center.

Willis said his pains have subsided somewhat, and a week with two games against ranked opponents to open league play — UNLV faces No. 15 New Mexico on Saturday — is just what he wants to come back against.

"I love those types of environments," he said. "It's one of the hardest places to play in the NCAA. I just love games like that, where the crowd is rowdy and you've just got each other. It's you against them and you have to fight them and the 20,000 people in the stands."

The strong showing on the road against BYU was just one instance in what has become a trend for Willis while at UNLV. This season, especially, he's saved his best for the crowds away from the Thomas & Mack Center.

Take away his anomaly of a performance in Honolulu against USC, and Willis is averaging 16 points per game and shooting 49.3 percent from the floor in six road games.

Willis's presence on the defensive end will be just as important as anything else Wednesday. One of the league's biggest games early in the conference season could come down to whomever can force their style on the other.

While UNLV likes to play a tough, in-your-face defensive style combined with efficient offensive possessions, BYU has run at a breakneck speed this season, even scoring in triple digits twice.

"I don't think you can go into BYU and win 110-105," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "The priority of every team playing BYU — in Provo, especially — is to limit their transition opportunities. But, still, they do it very well.

"I think any time you go on the road and win any place it's a confidence builder for sure. To go into BYU, a place where not a lot of people go into and win, would be an even greater boost. But that's easier said than done, for sure."

The UNLV coaching staff made a point of waking up its squad Monday afternoon during a spirited practice at the Mack, practicing with full-court drills for a good portion of the session. The scout team emulated BYU by executing lengthy outlet passes on inbounds plays.

Crashing the defensive glass was imperative, too, as running suicides was a punishment for not grabbing boards efficiently.

On the offensive end, UNLV's regulars worked on attacking a 2-3 zone, among other drills.

"If we can just make them a half-court team, work together and help each other, then we can try to dictate a little bit and we feel like we have a great chance," Willis said. "We don't want them to get any easy buckets. We want them to have to work for everything in the half-court."

Added Kruger, "You go up there wanting to slow them down. We'll always want to get ours if we can in transition, but always when you go up to Provo, you want to limit their opportunities to get out in transition."

While UNLV hasn't given much thought yet to Saturday's trip to Albuquerque, a fringe benefit of performing well in Provo would be building momentum for the clash with the Lobos, who to date have been the league's most impressive team.

And though the results from the first week of Mountain West play will hardly dictate how UNLV's season plays out the rest of the way, the Rebels have a golden opportunity to get themselves a more prominent spot on the national radar after a brief stumble from the limelight.

"I think we're ready — it's a challenge for us," Willis said. "Those are probably the two toughest road games in conference. If we can go out there, take on the challenge and play like we want to play, we should feel pretty good about the result."

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