Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008 | 2:09 a.m.
- Opponent: UTEP
- Where: El Paso, Texas
- When: Monday, Nov. 24, 6 p.m.
When North Carolina A&T took a lead on UNLV in the second half Saturday night, three senior Rebels regained control by leading a game-changing run.
Wink Adams, UNLV’s backbone, wasn’t one of them.
Other veteran Rebels helped turn momentum in a 71-58 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“That takes pressure off him and that’s when he excels,” said senior forward Rene “Nene” Rougeau. “We’re trying to work on that by being more reliable. He’s our go-to guy and we have to help him out.”
Senior forward Joe Darger nailed a pair of 3-pointers during that decisive 23-8 run.
“It’s good to be deep and have other guys pick up some slack from Wink,” Darger said. “We still expect him to make big shots, get to the paint and make a play, but it’s good to have some other guys hit some shots.”
For the first time in his five seasons at UNLV, coach Lon Kruger has a perfect record after four games.
Now, the schedule becomes more interesting. The Rebels play at Texas-El Paso (3-0) on Monday night, and they return home for games against California, and Cincinnati or Florida State, next weekend.
“It’s time to step our game up and get better, get rid of some mistakes we’ve made,” Darger said. “It’s our first road test Monday, so we have to be ready for that mindset.”
Playing center last season put Darger in the proper mindset Saturday night, when Kruger shifted to a smaller, more versatile lineup to nullify A&T center Thomas Coleman.
Coleman had his way down low in the first half, hitting all seven of his shots on UNLV’s trio of centers for 14 points.
In the second half, against a more active defense and having to work more on defense against Darger, Coleman faded; he missed his only attempt.
North Carolina A&T (2-2) went 3-for-12 from the field, getting two shots blocked and turning it over three times in the 8 1/2 minutes after it had taken the lead.
Darger’s 3-pointer from the left side, with Coleman trying to hound him, gave the Rebels a 67-53 lead with 3 minutes, 29 seconds remaining.
Aggies sixth-year coach Jerry Eaves said he was flummoxed how UNLV could shoot 15 3-pointers in the second half and still get to the free-throw line 17 times.
“I was a little upset with that because it doesn’t go together,” said the former Louisville player. “They were shooting perimeter jump shots, but there were whistles blowing all the time, too. That was a little unusual.”
Eaves had the Aggies mostly play man-to-man on defense, but they did do some match-up zoning on UNLV’s guards.
Rebels senior power forward Mo Rutledge chipped in with a 3-pointer, and UNLV’s two new guards made some plays of their own during the pivotal stretch of the game.
For Tre’Von Willis, a sophomore transfer from Memphis who jumped off the bench in his first three UNLV games, it was his first start as a Rebel.
And that came despite a slightly separated right shoulder. Willis gauged his strength at about 65 percent.
But his 3-pointer from the right side with 9:14 left pumped UNLV’s advantage to 56-45 and ignited a crowd of 12,732 for the first time all evening.
That was his lone basket, in five attempts, of the game. He finished with eight points, four assists, three turnovers and two steals.
Oscar Bellfield, the freshman who started UNLV’s first three games at the point, came off the bench to score four points, steal three passes and dish out two assists.
It was also revealed Saturday night that Bellfield suffers from asthma, but he downplayed that ailment and his first reserve role as a Rebel.
“Not a big deal,” he said. “Coach was trying something new. Different styles, different positions, different places. It’s cool.”
When UNLV found itself trailing for the first time since the first basket of the game, it was patient – which is what Kruger and his assistants have been preaching all week.
The Rebels worked it to Rougeau on the right baseline, and his mid-range jumper gave them a 46-45 lead.
Rougeau got a hand on Marc Hill’s shot and wound up with two free throws at the other end when he got hacked by Nicholas Wilson with 11:21 left.
Before Rougeau sank his two free throws, the teams zipped to their respective benches for the 12-minute TV timeout.
“Can’t panic,” Adams said. “Nene, Joe, Mo and I went to the bench and said, don’t panic. We told people we need shots and have to make stops. That’s what we did. We kept our composure.”
After Rougeau’s free throws, Rutledge made two free throws and canned a 3-pointer, and the Rebels had secured the lead.
They didn’t secure the game until Darger’s 3-pointer from the left side gave UNLV a 62-51 edge with 5:03 left.
Adams, who had a game-high 19 points, made two free throws before Darger hit another 3-pointer to seal it.
Lesser foes had challenged the Rebels in three of their first four games.
“Another tough one,” Rougeau said. “But we finally got through the week.”