Eugene Tanner / AP
Saturday, Dec. 26, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Alex Adeyanju discuss UNLV's unflattering finish at the Diamond Head Classic, falling to USC, 67-56. Plus, the guys grade out UNLV's non-conference season and take a look at what's to come in Mountain West play.
What could feel even longer, now, is the 11-day stretch with no game action before the Rebels (12-2) begin Mountain West Conference play on Jan. 6 at BYU.
"It makes it tough, because you're just going to practice with no games, and don't have a chance to prove yourself for 11 days," junior guard Tre'Von Willis said. "But it's a tough loss to swallow, for me, especially. We have to go back to square one and get back to doing the things we do."
In back-to-back blowout victories over SMU and Hawaii to start the week in Honolulu, UNLV made a habit of imposing its will and doing those things it normally does.
On Saturday, surging USC, which is now 8-4 with six straight wins, took the upper hand right from go and never let go of the dominant position.
UNLV came in scoring an average of 78 points per game, while USC entered allowing only 56.4.
"Kind of early in the first half, with the ball screens and stuff, they were doing a good job of sending stuff in one direction," said sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield, who led UNLV with 17 points. "We just didn't really get the flow of it."
Despite the Rebels' rough offensive start, they were still within range and hanging tough late in the first half, down 23-18.
At that point, USC ripped off a devastating 10-0 run, highlighted by senior point guard Mike Gerrity flinging a full-court inbounds pass to teammate Dwight Lewis. He hit Lewis in stride for an and-one layup at the other end.
UNLV trailed 39-25 at the half and could never quite adjust.
"You have to get a lower base, you have to play with more strength, you have to look for contact more, have to deliver the first blow instead of responding to getting popped all the time," coach Lon Kruger said, recalling his halftime message to his team. "I thought we did at times in the second half. Not enough. That's another physical team that came in and knocked us around. We've got to figure out how to handle that better."
The first instance of an opponent having its way with the Rebels physically in that fashion came in — oddly enough — the team's only previous loss, falling 95-80 on Dec. 12 to Kansas State.
The difference this time, however, was that the Trojans continually left the door open down the stretch, giving UNLV several opportunities to climb back into it late.
Bellfield hit a 3-pointer with 4:43 to play, pulling the Rebels to within 11 points at 59-48. USC went just 8-of-15 from the free throw line from that point on, but UNLV in turn was only 2-for-8 from the floor in that closing stretch, turning the ball over twice.
Of course, expecting UNLV to find some kind of offensive rhythm late might have been asking too much. Not only did USC refuse to let up on the defensive end, but the Rebels had hardly been themselves to that point in terms of offensive production.
Bellfield was the only one of UNLV's top four scorers on the season to offer much of anything.
Willis played 29 minutes before fouling out late, and was 0-for-6 from the floor. It was only the second time in his UNLV career in which he was held without a field goal and the first time this season.
Junior guard Derrick Jasper picked up his second foul 94 seconds into the game and spent the rest of the first half on the bench. On the heels of one of his best performances as a Rebel against Hawaii, he scored three points on 1-of-3 shooting.
Sophomore forward Chace Stanback was 1-of-5 from the floor, scored five points, picked up four fouls and didn't grab a rebound in 13 minutes, with his night chopped up thanks to his own foul trouble.
In all, UNLV was 17-of-50 from the floor, 5-of-22 from 3-point range and committed 15 turnovers across from eight assists.
"There were really no open looks at all, it was really crowded and jump shots weren't falling," Willis said. "We weren't getting up and running in transition, every bucket had to be earned. They did a good job with that."
USC was paced by senior forward Marcus Johnson, who posted game highs with 19 points and nine rebounds. Gerrity, who was named tournament MVP, finished with 13 points, three assists and no turnovers.
In all, it was another case of a bigger, stronger team having its way with UNLV, and combating that will be a big focus for UNLV as the Rebels head into the 11-day hiatus from game action.
After all, it won't be the last time this year that Kruger's club encounters that brand of opponent.
"They're a very physical club by nature with that big, big front line," Kruger said. "The biggest concern is those big, physical teams. Those types of teams have beaten us twice. That's a concern. You never know how you're gonna respond to that until you line up against it. We lost those two battles, so we have to continue to be concerned about that. But this team's progressed well, we've got a great attitude about working.
"We're disappointed right now, which you'd expect and hope for, but we'll bounce back."