Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — When the door to the visitor's locker room in the corner of Moby Arena swung open on Saturday night, the celebration that could be heard had an accent of relief to it.
Pressure had begun to mount on UNLV in the last week, after letting a late lead slip in a 63-57 loss to No. 6 San Diego State, then winning in the ugliest of fashions over Air Force four days later, 49-42.
With their NCAA tournament at-large profile on the line, the Rebels got a win that they could feel good about in Fort Collins, Colo., over surging Colorado State in 68-61 fashion.
"We knew it was going to be a big game today. Whoever won this game was going to get an extra boost over the other," guard Anthony Marshall said.
Marshall had a hand in the Rebels' monster second-half performance, but the catalyst that woke UNLV (20-7 overall, 8-5 Mountain West) up was Oscar Bellfield.
The Rebels point guard, who has struggled to consistently hit outside shots for much of league play, hit four 3-pointers after the break, and everyone simply fed off of his momentum.
UNLV trailed 27-22 at the half, as looks from the floor didn't come easy, and the magnitude of the game seemed to be making the Rebels a bit tentative on offense. In the game's first 20 minutes, they were just 9-of-25 from the floor.
A 9-2 run to open up the second stanza put UNLV ahead, and then back-to-back threes from Bellfield a few minutes later helped put the Rebels in the driver's seat for good. They never trailed again.
After he hit a couple of outside shots, the ball movement improved, a raucous crowd of 8,745 was held in check and more guys around Bellfield got the confidence to step up and pull the trigger on shots of their own.
"It all starts with one person," forward Chace Stanback said. "One person starts knocking down shots, it gets contagious. Everyone starts having more confidence in what we're doing and shots start falling.
"He played great. He's our floor general. When he starts getting open looks, knocking them down, it gives everybody on the team a boost of confidence."
Before Saturday, the Mountain West Conference season had been a labor of love for Bellfield.
Early in the season, he was one of the team's hottest shooters, looking like someone who would help make up for absences of the injured Kendall Wallace and suspended Matt Shaw — the team's top deep threats a year ago.
Since suffering a right wrist injury in late December against Southern Utah that he's played through without complaint, Bellfield hasn't consistently been the same, merely showing flashes and suffering through brutal droughts.
Still, he's there after practice every day shooting and usually is one of the last guys to leave the gym. On Saturday, it paid off for the guy who was just 15-of-64 (23.4 percent) from 3-point territory in the team's first 12 MWC games.
"(I had to) stay positive, not think about the misses or even the shots," Bellfield said. "I got the opportunity with teammates creating great looks for me. I was just taking advantage of it.
"If I hesitated, the outcome probably would have been different. If I just let it go, I'm better off."
Bellfield's most memorable play from Saturday afternoon, though, didn't involve him scoring.
The Rebels scored a series of back-breaking shots down the stretch with the Rams trying to claw back, but facing a dwindling shot clock late and UNLV up 60-57 in the final minute, Bellfield shot down the lane trying to pull something out of thin air. What he found was Marshall on a backdoor cut after his defender was drawn to help on Bellfield.
Bellfield zipped a quick pass while hanging in the air to Marshall, who provided the dagger with a reverse layup.
It helped close out a second half which was on the opposite end of the quality spectrum from the first. After the break, UNLV was 15-of-29 from the floor, 7-of-13 from long range and credited sharper execution for the improvement.
Anyone watching could have seen that.
"A lot of it was a result of driving and kicking, misdirection, getting it back to open people," coach Lon Kruger said. "Oscar made some big plays, as did Anthony and Chace, as well. But Oscar was the key to giving us that margin in the second half."
Bellfield scored a team-high 18 points and didn't turn the ball over in 32 minutes. No one benefited more in the second half from him opening things up more than Stanback, who scored 10 of his 12 points after the intermission. He also had 10 boards, earning his third double-double of the season.
Marshall scored 16 on 7-of-11 shooting, also notching six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Meanwhile, Tre'Von Willis was more vocal and demonstrative than normal on the floor, recording nine points, a season-high eight assists and five rebounds.
UNLV's efforts on defense and the boards couldn't be ignored, either.
The Rebels forced 17 CSU turnovers, and took out one of the Rams' two major forces in the paint. Seniors Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin combined for 42 points and 16 rebounds in a stunning 78-63 victory in Las Vegas in mid-January, but only Ogide could get it going in the rematch. He had 19 points and seven boards, but Franklin was held scoreless with just one rebound in 14 minutes.
As a team, Colorado State limited itself by only being able to corral five offensive rebounds, with Stanback owning the defensive glass for much of the game. He had nine of the Rebels' 22 defensive rips.
"There was the satisfaction of going on the road, into a tough place and beating a good team," Kruger said. "Plus, making some shots is (cause for) a sigh of relief, too."
In the bigger picture, UNLV can now be relieved that it has a bit of a leg up on Colorado State in the race for the Mountain West's third potential NCAA tournament bid.
On top of that, the Rebels inched closer to third place in the league standings, which is heavily sought after this year by both teams in hopes of avoiding the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game in the MWC tournament quarterfinals.
Steve Alford's club on Saturday lost its third straight game for the second time this conference season, getting knocked off at the buzzer by Utah, 62-60, in Albuquerque. That dropped them to 5-7 in the league, tying the fifth place Lobos in the loss column with Air Force.
But, no matter how up and down UNM is, winning in The Pit is never an easy task.
UNLV heads there with a little more wiggle room on its résumé with Saturday's win in the book, but the Rebels will try to avoid looking at it in that manner.
"The last couple of days in preparation for this game, we felt that we did a lot of things to take a step forward," Marshall said. "After the game, we just felt good about what we'd done. We've got to let this game go now and look forward to the next one.
"For us to get to where we're trying to go, that's what we have to do from here on out."