Monday, Jan. 14, 1991 | 2 a.m.
For the first time this season, Jerry Tarkanian was ready to push the panic button.
Larry Johnson and George Ackles, his two inside studs, were both in foul trouble with four personals apiece.
Fresno State had whittled a 66-48 halftime deficit to 83-70 and there was still 11:44 to play and the sellout crowd of 10,159 at Selland Arena was going crazy, as though its team was up by 13 points instead of down by 13.
Surely one of the two Rebels were going to be lost to fouls, if not both.
But Tarkanian didn’t push the panic button. Instead he sat Ackles down, returned Johnson to the court and the All-American not only remained in the game, he played if there was no such thing as a disqualification rule.
Is it any wonder then that UNLV eventually pulled away to hand Fresno State its worst Selland Arena defeat, 117-91?
“I was really scared,” Tarkanian said of the second half dilemma he faced. “When Larry got his fourth, I thought we were in big trouble.”
But Johnson, who led the Rebels (11-0 overall, 5-0 in the Big West) with 27 points and 10 rebounds, wasn’t as concerned.
“I backed off on a couple of offensive rebounds but otherwise, I just went out and played,” he said. “You can’t be playing scared because that’s when you foul out.”
Both Johnson and Ackles stayed on the floor, meaning Evric Gray’s ignominious distinction of being the only UNLV player to foul out this season remains intact. Gray fouled out in the opening game of the season against Alabama-Birmingham.
The Rebels, who remained atop the polls as America’s No. 1 team this afternoon, had to contend with a different kind of Bulldog Saturday. Fresno State is no longer the patient, take-your-time offensive team it was under first Boyd Grant, then Ron Adams. No these Bulldogs would rather be greyhounds.
“We’ve got the green light,” said Dave Barnett, who had 20 points, including six three-pointers. “It’s a lot different from last year.”
Barnett was burning up the nets in the first half, hitting 5 of 7 three-pointers and going into the locker room with 15 points. Tarkanian, who was more concerned about Wilbert Hooker, who would finish with 24, decided to go to the amoeba zone defense with Greg Anthony at the top to slow down Barnett.
Barnett was shut down by Anthony and picked up five points late in the game long after Anthony had departed and the outcome was no longer in doubt.
“Their zone definitely bothered me,” Barnett said. “Anthony and (Anderson) Hunt are the two best defensive guards in the country and they just shut us down. They forced us into a lot of rushed shots.”
Hooker said, “A team like Vegas presses you so hard, you’ve got to try and find the gaps. We did that in the first half but not as well in the second half.”
Anthony said his job on Barnett in the second half was no big deal.
“It was nothing special,” said Anthony, who had a nice double-double of 19 points and 11 assists. “They had some quickness so we just made some adjustments.”
Lately, several of UNLV’s opponents have been demonstrating quickness in the backcourt. Tarkanian said it is nothing a little concentration from his players can’t cure.
“It’s all emotional,” Tarkanian said. “Once we get intense we won’t get beat on the dribble.”
The Rebels didn’t appear to be emotionally involved Saturday, choosing instead to rely on their superior talent. But when the Bulldogs cut the lead to 74-63 with 14:31 to play, UNLV began to get interested and Stacey Augmon began to get busy.
Augmon, who finished with 22 points, hit a three-pointer to get the edge back to 14. When Johnson picked up his fourth personal a minute later, he picked it up another notch.
A running floater in the key was followed by an amazing bank shot from his knees from 15 feet out. Another jumper, followed by another three-pointer and a big-time dunk off a feed from Tarvis Bice had Augmon dominating the game and sent the Bulldogs (7-7, 2-3 Big West) packing.
“When we got it to 11 and Johnson was in foul trouble, I thought we had a chance,” Fresno State Coach Gary Colson said. “It happened the other night in Santa Barbara and I thought it could happen here.”
“But you’ve got to give Stacey Augmon credit. We backed off him, but he’s a great player and he’s improved his shooting. If you lay off him, he’ll stick it.”
Stick it he did and Tarkanian survived yet another visit to his alma mater.
“Invariably, we never come in here and play with much intensity,” Tarkanian said. “This is a totally different Fresno team. Gray runs that Oregon State offense and they’ve got some great shooters.”
“We’re not used to that here. When we’d come here, Boyd’s teams and Ron’s teams would guard you as soon as you got off the airplane.”
Colson had a theory behind UNLV’s supposed emotional lethargy.
“I think it’s a little boring for the Rebels,” he said. “They’re Muhammed Ali. They know they’re the best. They’re tough and they know they’re going to do.
“I’ve got some kids who are fearless. But UNLV’s size and strength wars you down. They go deep and we don’t”
Deep enough at least to where Tarkanian didn’t have to push the panic button.