Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010 | 2:28 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss just what went wrong for UNLV in a 73-69 loss to Utah on Saturday night at the Mack, which was the Utes' first victory over the Rebels on their home floor since 2005. Plus, how will the Rebels fare in an upcoming four-game stretch and who is most likely to emerge as the much-needed third consistent offensive threat?
The Utah basketball team had been in this situation before.
They held a one-point lead Saturday night against UNLV with about five minutes to play in a game that resembled the past two contests between the schools at the Thomas & Mack Center.
This time, however, the outcome was different.
Instead of squandering the lead down the stretch like years past, Utah connected on seven of eight foul shots in the final 1:32 and received a breakout performance from sophomore center David Foster in upsetting the Rebels, 73-69.
Foster, after missing two foul shots with a little more than five minutes to play, calmly sank a pair of free throws with 36 seconds left to give Utah a 70-67 lead.
"I looked over to the bench (from the foul line) and saw that my teammates had all of the confidence in the world in me," Foster said.
UNLV's Tre'Von Willis misfired on a 3-pointer on the Rebels ensuing possession and Utah hung on for the win — finally. Utah hadn't defeated UNLV on its home floor since 2005.
It's a victory that couldn't have come a better time.
Utah (9-8, 1-1) was defeated by 17 points Wednesday at New Mexico and has struggled to find its rhythm all season. The Utes lost their home opener to Idaho in early November and had a three-game losing streak in December.
But now, following their biggest upset in the initial two weeks of Mountain West Conference play, the Utes arguably have more momentum than any other team in the league.
Utah coach Jim Boylen told his players earlier in the day to expect a close game.
"But this time, when we get the lead with under five minutes to play, we are going to close it out," he recalled telling them.
This was not the first time Utah celebrated a big win at the Mack. They won three games in three days last March to capture the conference tournament title.
"I just love playing here, man," said junior guard Carlon Brown, who finished with 16 points. "We followed our game plan all the way until the end."
Part of that game plan was to use Utah's size advantage. Foster is 7-foot-3, freshman center Jason Washburn is 7-foot and 6-foot-11 senior forward Kim Tillie returned after missing two games following arthroscopic knee surgery.
Foster finished with 13 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots, while Tillie had five points and five rebounds in 16 minutes before fouling out.
"I just love playing on the road," Foster said. "It gets me really pumped up to play."
Foster, with MWC Player of the Year Luke Nevill eating up most of the minutes last year, didn't play in either contest against UNLV. But with Nevill graduated, the second-year player from Lake Forest, Calif., showed he has the potential to terrorize the league just like Nevill did.
"(Foster) was terrific," Boylen said. "When you have a big man who can make free throws and protect the rim late in the game, that gives you such an advantage."
And Tillie gives Utah an average of more than the 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
"He's a physical specimen," the coach said. "He was bigger than their guys but just as athletic."
Utah was 6-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half and led by as many as nine. Freshman Marshall Henderson sparked the outburst by making four 3-pointers in the initial 13 minutes.
"You have to get road wins like this if you want to win the conference," Henderson said.
You also have to hold serve on your home court — something the Utes will try to do Tuesday when they host San Diego State.
Boylen hopes the toughness his players showed Saturday continues the rest of the season.
"I just don't think we were tough enough against New Mexico," the coach said. "Tonight we were tough and grinded it out."
Ray Brewer can be reached at email@example.com or 990-2662.