Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 | 2:10 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Rob Miech come to you from Fresno, where UNLV downed Fresno State on Wednesday night, 82-76, behind big performances from Darris Santee and Tre'Von Willis. Santee scored 21 points and helped provide inside-outside offensive balance for the Rebels, while Willis continued to establish himself as the driving vocal force Lon Kruger's club needs on the floor.
FRESNO – Eighty seconds remained Wednesday night at the Save Mart Center when UNLV coach Lon Kruger switched gears on one of his basic plays.
And sophomore Tre’Von Willis, before a crowd that included about 50 friends and relatives, proved his growing value at the point.
The Rebels (6-2) left the arena with an 82-76 victory over Fresno State (2-4) because of Kruger’s flexibility and Willis’s moxie.
Nearly every UNLV player and coach agreed that it might have been the best singular play of the Rebels’ season so far.
“Definitely,” said senior guard Wink Adams. “I think so. The pace was right. It took time off the clock, and we got a better shot than the play is supposed to give us. Whenever we can get those, it’s good.”
On a night when UNLV again lost the battle on the boards, struggled from the 3-point line and Adams continued to misfire, Willis was the cool and calm presence.
In his fifth consecutive start at the point, he committed only two fouls – his fewest as a member of the first unit.
With Willis directing the show, UNLV tied a season low by committing only eight turnovers.
In the game’s final minute, he icily directed the play of the game, if not of UNLV’s young season.
Paul George, Fresno State’s superb 6-foot-7 freshman forward who led everyone with 24 points, launched an errant 3-point shot that Willis nabbed after a long bounce off the rim with 1 minute, 20 seconds left.
UNLV led, 78-74, so Willis walked the ball up the court and fielded a signal from Kruger, who called for an “eight-second play” that the Rebels usually run against a zone defense.
The Bulldogs were playing a man-to-man defense.
Willis didn’t flinch at the incongruity of the call.
It was designed for him to whittle a chunk of the 35-second shooting clock, drive with about eight ticks left and find either Adams or Joe Darger in a corner for a 3-point shot.
It started with Willis milking the shot clock against Fresno State senior guard Dwight O’Neil, Willis’s older half-brother who was guarding his younger sibling one of the rare times all night.
Willis drifted left, drew traffic after center Darris Santee set a textbook screen and had two options.
Adams was in the left corner, but Willis fed it to Santee with five or six seconds left on the shot clock.
Santee nearly went strong to the rim on the left side, but when George left Rebels senior forward Rene “NeNe” Rougeau on the right post to hound Santee, Santee caught the move.
He zipped the ball to Rougeau for an easy layup, which made it 80-74 with 46 seconds left. Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland called for a timeout.
Many of the 9,393 fans scrambled for the exits.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” said Rougeau, when asked if that might have been the team’s best play of the season. “Coach called it our bread-and-butter play. Time was running down, so we wanted to run some clock.
“Darris, first of all, set a great pick to get ‘Tre’ open. ‘Tre’ kicked it back to Darris, and I was wide open under the hole. We’re learning more and more each game. We just have to keep working together.”
Santee, who drew attention because of the team-high and career-best 21 points he scored, said he hesitated the moment he caught Willis’s pass.
“I was looking to score,” he said. “I saw ‘NeNe’ on the other side and it was an easy pass. I just saw him wide open. It could be our best play so far.”
Willis, who matched his career high with 18 points, recounted the pivotal play like a surgeon and believed it was the team’s best play over the past three weeks.
“Yeah, because at that point I knew exactly what I wanted,” he said. “Coming off the pick-and-roll, I knew they’d follow me. I drew two players and Darris flashed right there.
“I told him to roll hard and I threw it to him. It was a two-on-one right there, and they had no chance. Darris made a nice scoop pass to Rene and he finished it.”
UNLV secured the game on Santee’s steal of an inbounds pass, and free throws by Willis and Adams.
Kruger liked what he saw in Willis, playing with a slightly separated right shoulder, late Saturday against Cincinnati.
Instead of charging like a bull through the lane, and picking up a charging call, Willis pulled up from about 6 feet for a soft jumper.
That, Kruger said, showed he’s learning. Wednesday showed why Kruger put freshman point guard Oscar Bellfield on the bench, in favor of Willis, against North Carolina A&T on Nov. 22.
“I think, from what (Kruger) took from it is that ‘Tre’ provides a sense of toughness, physical toughness, that maybe Oscar can’t give to the ball club right now,” said Rebels assistant coach Greg Grensing.
“And with Oscar coming in off the bench, we can slide ‘Tre’ to the ‘two’ and ‘three’ a little bit. It helps the rotation a little bit more.”
According to Grensing, Willis showed how lethal he can be when he dials down his game a notch or two, when he stays in second or third gear, when he doesn’t try to do it all by himself.
Like he did on that stellar play in the final minute Wednesday night.
“It certainly was the most timely one of the season,” Grensing said. “Sometimes ‘Tre’ is his own worst enemy trying, in his competitive nature, to do it himself.
“He understood what was going on around him and didn’t try to make too hard a play. He realized he had time … and they made the plays to finish the game and salt it away.”