A not-so-perfect ending to Rebels’ perfect PCAA season

FRESNO, Calif. – Forget Fresno State’s 8-19 record, UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian warned. The Rebels’ 48-point win earlier this season over the Bulldogs? Ancient history. Fresno State never gets blown out in Selland Arena.

“I don’t ever expect an easy game with Fresno,” Tarkanian said Sunday after the Rebels struggled past the Bulldogs, 70-59. “There’s too much tradition there, too much pride.”

Fresno State, down by as many as 17 points midway through the second half, closed to within five late in the game. But a couple of clutch plays by Freddie Banks and the Rebels’ superiority at the free-throw line capped a perfect Pacific Coast Athletic Association season for UNLV.

The No. 1-ranked Rebels finished the regular season 30-1 overall and 18-0 conference. Fresno State, which plays host to UC Santa Barbara on Monday, is 8-20 overall and 3-14 in PCAA action.

The Rebels won the game the way they’ve been winning them all season.

Armon Gilliam scored 21 points, hitting 10 of 14 shots from the floor.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a better front-line player in our conference,” said first-year Fresno State head coach Ron Adams, who served as an assistant for eight years with the Bulldogs. “ I don’t know if he’s the best jumper, or the fatest runner, or the deftest passer. But he’s a great player.”

Banks hit three three-pointers and scored 19 points.

After Fresno State cut the margin to five with 2:51 to play, Banks nailed a three-pointer, then scored on a driving left-handed shot to get the Rebels out of trouble.

Mark Wade scored just two points, but had 12 assists and made life tough for Fresno State point guard Leo Walker.

Wade’s 12 assists tied the NCAA single-season record of 328, set last season by Mark Jackson of St. John’s.

Fresno State played the type of game it needed to play to have a chance of beating the Rebels. The Bulldogs were patient offensively and didn’t allow UNLV to get its fastbreak into high gear.

“The tempo of the game favored us,” Adams said. “We were able to stay in the game. They couldn’t get going early, because they missed some shots. Then they just stood around for awhile, which I was happy to see.”

The 70 points UNLV scored represents the Rebels’ lowest output of the season.

“Our defense wasn’t bad, but we shot it very poorly (early in the game),” Tarkanian said. “We weren’t into the game. This is a tough place to play with this crowd. Every time they make a run, they almost rip the roof off.”

The Bulldogs kept it close most of the first half, but allowed UNLV to score the last seven points of the half to grab a 39-27 lead. The Rebels extended the margin to 17, at 55-38, when Gilliam hit a baseline jump shot with 9:31 to play.

But the Bulldogs weren’t finished. Vincent Stone came off the bench to hit a pair of three-pointers and Mike Mitchell, who didn’t score until there was just 6:43 remaining, put in nine quick points. When Mitchell hit a pair of free throws with 2:51 to play, UNLV led just 59-54.

“We got kind of lazy and their big guy off the bench (Stone) got hot,” Wade said.

The sellout crowd of 10,132 finally made the kind of noise it’s known for. But Banks hushed the rabid Fresno fans by drilling a three-pointer. On the Rebels’ next possession, Banks drove the baseline and scored with his left hand.

The Rebels hit six straight free throws in the last 52 seconds to make sure. Fresno State hurt itself at the line, missing the front end of five one-and-one opportunities.

“A critical factor for us was our free-throw shooting,” Adams said. “Missing those front ends in the first half was crucial. In the second half we needed them, too. That just killed us.”

This was the differet game than the one played at the Thomas and Mack Center earlier this season, a 106-58 UNLV rout. The Fresno State players earned a standing ovation at the end of the game.

Adams wasn’t counting the game as a moral victory, but said he was pleased with his club’s improvement.

“There was a great disparity in that first game,” he said. “But I think we’re competing much tougher now.”

The Bulldogs’ season will end Monday, with the young Fresno State tam on the bottom of the PCAA standings, but with reason to think things will get better.

For the Rebels, the future is now. UNLV will meet Cal State Long Beach at 9 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the PCAA tournament at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., then wait for the NCAA to announce its tournament pairings on Sunday.

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