REBELS BASKETBALL:

Willis sparks comeback while short of full strength

UNLV vs. UTEP

UNLV coach Lon Kruger instructs Tre'von Willis during the second half against UTEP on Monday in El Paso, Texas. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

UTEP POSTGAME: Victory on Glory Road

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Ryan Greene and Rob Miech discuss UNLV's passing of its first road test of the season Monday night at UTEP. The Rebels were powered by the backcourt trio of Wink Adams, Tre'Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield. Plus, the guys look inside at Lon Kruger's ever-solidifying rotation now that audition time appears to be done.

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Next game

  • Opponent: California
  • Where: Thomas & Mack
  • When: Friday, Nov. 28, 5 p.m.

EL PASO -- Tre'Von Willis scored 17 points, sparked a momentum-shifting 12-2 UNLV run in the first half, grabbed five rebounds and only turned the ball over once in 26 minutes of play Monday night.

The Rebels sophomore point guard did it all with a shoulder on his dominant side that was only at 72 percent, too.

Well, that of course is going by his scientific calculations.

"Seven plus 65 is 72," Willis said as he left the Don Haskins Center following an 80-67 victory over Texas-El Paso, which improved the Rebels to 5-0. "(It hurt Monday) a little bit, but at the same time, this is what I love to do and I'm gonna battle beside my teammates. I could block out the pain for a little bit during the game."

Willis did the math in response to a question regarding the health of his right shoulder, given that Saturday night following a victory over North Carolina A&T he said it was at 65 percent after slightly separating it.

That percentage will likely increase, too, before UNLV next suits up to take on California on Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels finished a stretch of five games in 10 days here with an unblemished record.

With Thanksgiving two days away, it was just how Willis wanted to go into the brief sabbatical.

"It's gonna make the plane ride more enjoyable, and the next time we practice (Wednesday) and Thanksgiving much more special," he said. "It just feels good to get a win like this, going home with smiles on our faces.

"It'll make the turkey tastier. And the dressing."

Willis — a self-proclaimed “team guy” — could take some added pleasure home with him on the plane having put more of a personal touch on win No. 5 than he did on the first four.

What got him going was the run the Rebels put on after falling behind in the first half, 30-17.

First, junior forward Darris Santee spun between two defenders and put in a tough bucket underneath. In response, speedy UTEP guard Randy Culpepper zipped to the other end and dropped in an off-balance layup. Culpepper, though, made the mistake of pumping his fist too many times in celebration afterward.

Willis took the inbounds pass, noticed Culpepper slacking behind and did a coast-to-coast job of his own to cut the deficit back to 11 points. Wink Adams then snatched a defensive board and, in transition, spotted Willis, who cashed the first of his two 3-pointers on the night.

From there, the Rebels added three Kendall Wallace free throws and a Joe Darger jumper. Just like that, a 13-point game that had the look of getting out of hand was back down to a three-point spread with 4 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the half.

"It felt good for me, because normally I want to penetrate and kick and get my teammates open shots, but we looked a little sluggish in the first half," Willis said. "I felt I had to be aggressive, and that's what I did."

After the break, Willis helped complete the comeback. He netted a layup that capped a 7-0 run to start the half, which gave UNLV the lead for good. Willis ended the night by going 7-of-8 from the charity stripe in the game's final 7:50.

"Tre did a really good job, as he's been doing," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "I thought he covered the ball real well, made some good plays, attacked the rim a couple times there at a critical stage in the second half. Tre's making strides very quickly."

What's making Willis even more valuable right now is how interchangeable he and fellow point guard Oscar Bellfield are. Just 2:22 into the second half, Willis picked up his third personal foul. Bellfield came in and atoned for a silent first half by scoring all 10 of his points after the break and playing with what's quickly becoming a signature mean streak.

It was most evident when he took a tough charge on the baseline from Gabriel McCulley with UTEP surging back in the second half. The call drew a chorus of boos from the 8,912 in attendance, but all Bellfield did was feed off of it.

He came back with a layup, and after UTEP answered with a huge dunk, he went right back down, hit a straight-on 3-pointer and waved three fingers in the air.

He also put in an and-one layup earlier in the half in fearless fashion, driving the baseline and going up against 7-foot, 285-pound Miners center Kareem Cooper.

"Oscar and Tre, that's what we expect them to do — make plays and get to the line like they did tonight,” Adams said. “I think this was just their coming-out game. This is what these guys can do on an every-night basis. When I'm in a slump shooting, those guys can pick up the slack. Tonight they did a great job hitting shots and picking up the slack."

They've also proven to be interchangeable no matter who's in the starting lineup. Willis on Monday earned his second consecutive starting nod. But in those two games, the minutes have been about halved. Between Saturday night and Monday, Willis played 52 minutes; Bellfield 47.

Essentially, Kruger's getting 50 minutes worth of starting point guard play per game.

"It doesn't matter because I'm about the team, but I do want to start," Willis said. "I feel more comfortable starting just to get a little sweat and stay in rhythm, but at the same time, O is a good player, me and him have got each other's back. Whatever coach decides, we just want to get this team to a win."

By following Kruger's orders, so far they're 5-for-5.

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  1. It might be a 1-2-3 punch combo Lenny. Wink was very impressive running the show last night.

    It's probably why you get all three on the court late in the game; as Greg Anthony called it our "hands team."