Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
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Ryan Greene is joined for a special edition of The Rebel Room by Tom Keegan, who is the sports editor of the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan. Why, you may ask? Well, Tom in his AP poll last weekend voted UNLV at No. 11, which was the highest nod the Rebels got following their victory over Louisville to improve to 5-0. Keegan explains why he voted UNLV so high, plus offers some insight into another program he knows well in Kansas State, who visits the Orleans Arena for a showdown with Lon Kruger's club next Saturday.
SANTA CLARA, Calif.— Yes, Tre'Von Willis did it again.
"It" would be carrying his team through a second-half comeback on the road following a sluggish start.
For the second time in four days, the UNLV junior guard flipped his inner switch after the intermission, helping improve the No. 24 Rebels to 7-0 on Saturday night in a 66-63 squeaker over Santa Clara.
But would he like to do it again?
"I don't like it at all," Willis said with a grin afterward. "Sitting on the bench the whole first half, that's very frustrating."
Willis picked up a foul just seven seconds into the game, when he was cited for grabbing a handful of an opponent's jersey on the defensive end.
He'd take a seat two minutes later, and shortly after later re-entering the game, Willis drew another whistle, this time being called for a block. After his second infraction, Willis stormed towards the bench, visibly suppressing frustration.
He'd watch the final 10:53 of the first half from the sideline, in all of its ugliness.
The Rebels went to the break down by eight following an unexpected 3-point play from Marc Trasolini in the closing seconds.
UNLV had been called for 15 fouls and was outrebounded 24-11 in the game's first 20 minutes. The only thing keeping the Rebels within range seemed to be the Broncos' 11 turnovers, stemming from Santa Clara's inexperience across the board. Kerry Keating's club was playing without sophomore guard Kevin Foster — the team's leading scorer — who broke his foot late in a victory at UC-Santa Barbara on Tuesday.
"(Coach Lon Kruger) didn't read off of the stat sheet — He had it basically memorized," junior guard Derrick Jasper said. "We were not rebounding at all and we weren't communicating on defense."
At Arizona on Wednesday, he scored 23 of his team-high 25 points in the second half and two overtime periods in a 74-72 win.
In a similar better-late-than-never showing, Willis scored all 14 of his points in the second half on Saturday night. He also finished the game with five assists, no turnovers and two steals after playing only four minutes in the first half.
"Especially with how the game was going, we weren't doing very well, doing what we wanted to do," Willis said. "We were letting them dictate the whole game. I was very frustrated. I had to sit on the bench; I couldn't help my team, so the second half, I wanted to come out, be aggressive and try to get us going a little bit."
Willis was the driving force right from go in the second stanza.
After hitting a jumper for the Rebels' first points of the second half, he helped his team capitalize on a momentary lapse in judgment by the Broncos (4-4).
Trasolini, who led all scorers with 22 points, threw down a vicious slam to put Santa Clara up 43-33 just minutes into the second half. But after doing a complete pull-up on the rim, a technical foul was called.
Willis responded by hitting one of two technical free throws, then scored on a tough layup inside on the ensuing possession.
After Brice Massamba added a layup off of a backdoor dish from Chace Stanback inside, Willis assisted Oscar Bellfield on a 3-pointer. Add two more free throws from Willis after stealing the ball on the defensive end, and a 10-0 run to pull UNLV even was completed.
"We always knew we could come back and win the game," Willis said. "We never think otherwise."
Despite the run early in the second half, UNLV never was able to pull away comfortably in the second half.
UNLV's recent offensive woes from long range didn't see a major upswing. Entering the game shooting 25.2 percent from 3-point land this season, the Rebels were 7-of-22, missing a handful of potential daggers late in the game.
On the other hand, Santa Clara, which took advantage of UNLV's first half foul troubles by going 15-of-19 from the line before halftime, was only 6-of-12 from the stripe out of the locker room.
Junior forward Matt Shaw ultimately sealed the deal for the Rebels. Motivated by splitting a pair of free throws in a key late-game trip to the line at Arizona on Wednesday, Shaw scored the Rebels' final four points of the game, going 4-of-4 on his charity tries.
"I was a little disappointed at Arizona because I missed one late that I felt could have sealed the game, so I've been putting a lot of free throws up in practice and doing my routine," Shaw said. "We're grateful that we won, but we realize we've got to come out with a lot more readiness.
"Like coach said today, we can play with anyone, but anybody can beat us as well."
The Rebels will now multitask rather than relax over the next six days in preparation for Saturday's contest at the Orleans Arena against Kansas State.
The team is off from practice duties for the next two days while preparing for this week's final exams.
Kruger will also more than likely make sure his team gets some serious study time in with Saturday's game tape.
UNLV's 7-0 record, which marks the program's best start since the 1990-91 season, could be very vulnerable to some future blemishes if the Rebels come out of the gates the same way they did in what had all the makings of a classic 'trap game.'
"We've got a lot of work to do, and this game's just a reminder of that," Kruger said. "We were fortunate to dodge a bullet tonight, and if we don't make progress, we won't be as fortunate the next time."