Bryan Oller / AP
Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In the long run, a game like Saturday's may be just what the Rebels need.
No, they didn't get back to shooting the lights out as they did early in the season. But UNLV did hit shots when it counted and, after not being able to do so three days earlier in a loss at San Diego State, rediscovered some killer instinct in a 64-52 win at Air Force.
The Rebels trailed by as many as seven points in the second half, but closed the Falcons out with a 19-2 run that was equal parts offense, defense and intangibles.
"We came into the first half kind of sluggish, (throwing) kind of weak passes," senior guard Derrick Jasper said. "We came out in the second half a little stronger, making our shots.
"I'm happy I had a good game, but I'm happy we won. There's a lot of teams that are going to come here and lose in this arena."
The Falcons (10-6 overall, 1-2 MWC) did in fact look markedly improved from the last two seasons, when they were the Mountain West's resident cellar dwellers. Fueled by 6-foot-6 junior forward Tom Fow, Air Force constructed a 28-23 halftime lead.
That edge at the break was also assisted by the Rebels' poor shooting. Coming off of a 1-for-18 performance from long range against the 6th-ranked Aztecs, UNLV (14-4, 2-2) was just 1-of-12 in the first half.
But any lingering bad taste from the poor shooting of late was lost when the Rebels finally hit a stride with just under eight minutes left to play.
Trailing 50-45, Jasper was fouled and headed to the line, where he cashed a pair of free throws.
On the other end, as Air Force uncharacteristically pushed the ball up the floor in a hurry, Jasper was beat on a back door feed to Fow, but he recovered in time to swat a lay-up attempt against the glass.
Moments later, after some nifty ball movement, he found Justin Hawkins in the left corner for a game-tying 3-pointer.
That was the start of a memorable spurt for the Rebels where everyone had something to offer.
Most notable on the offensive end was junior guard Oscar Bellfield, who capped a day of offensive frustrations by scoring seven points during the stretch, including a dagger of a trey with three minutes left, making it 56-50.
"Defensively, down the stretch, I thought we were really solid," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "We were kind of shorthanded and several guys had to play extended minutes, too. They fought off fatigue pretty good there in the second half."
The Rebels were without senior guard Tre'Von Willis, who stayed back in Las Vegas to continue to receive treatment on his sore right knee.
UNLV already proved earlier this season that it could be productive without Willis on the floor. An unexpected handicap, though, was sophomore guard Anthony Marshall — the Rebels' top performer over the past month — being held to 26 minutes due to foul trouble.
Marshall picked up his third foul in the final minute of the first half, then got No. 4 not too deep into the second stanza.
He still produced 12 points and four rebounds in 26 minutes, but stepping up to help was Hawkins, who tied a career high with 29 minutes of run. He scored 10 points to go with two rebounds and a pair of steals.
"It was a noter game where he came in and gave us a big spark," Marshall said. "He turned it up and got us in the flow. Seeing him out there running around and causing havoc, that goes down to the other guys."
Bellfield also finished with 12 points, but leading the way was Chace Stanback, who was 6-of-13 from the floor and busted from a recent cold shooting streak in the second half. He finished with a game-high 18 points along with 11 rebounds and five assists.
Jasper had more of a relieved look on his face than anyone who exited the Rebels' locker room, though.
He'd struggled mightily on both ends of the floor so far in MWC play, going just 4-of-19 from the floor with eight total points in the first three league games.
The coaching staff told him to not worry so much about offense and try to contribute elsewhere to build his confidence back up.
Heeding that advice and battling through a sore left knee, he only attempted one shot, but on top of his five points, he had 11 rebounds, six assists and no turnovers.
UNLV finished 20-of-49 from the floor, and while going 6-of-24 overall from deep is far from stellar, the team's 5-of-12 showing from long range in the second half was encouraging. They were also 18-of-21 from the free throw line, as Air Force's hopes for a late comeback were hurt by the Falcons going 0-for-6 from the stripe in the final 3:21.
More than anything, the Rebels looked at it as something to build from to start off what has quickly become the most crucial stretch of their MWC schedule.
After falling into a quick 1-2 hole, the margin for error is small over the next five games before entering the second half. That run continues with a pair of home tilts this week, with the Rebels hosting Colorado State (12-5, 2-1) on Wednesday, then New Mexico (13-5, 1-2) on Saturday night.
"That's huge for us as a team," Jasper said. "It just shows that we can overcome adversity. Air Force is a good team, a really unique team, we did a good job guarding their stuff and it's really a confidence-builder for our team."