AP Photo/The Gazette, Kevin Kreck
Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 | midnight
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Ryan Greene and Rob Miech, fresh off of their whirlwind trip back from Colorado Springs, talk about UNLV's 59-38 triumph over Air Force on Saturday afternoon. The ever-evolving Rebels were paced by the zone-busting 3-point shooting of Joe Darger and Kendall Wallace, while Tre'Von Willis used their marksmanship to help build his way to 11 assists. Plus, the guys take a quick look ahead at Tuesday's home date with San Diego State.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -– UNLV wasn’t about to experience a TCU- or Colorado State-like letdown Saturday afternoon against Air Force.
That the Rebels led by 10 at halftime inside Clune Arena showed they took the Falcons seriously. Then UNLV seniors Winks Adams and René Rougeau pushed their teammates during the intermission.
“We have to come out in the second half and play like we’re down 10,” Adams and Rougeau barked. “We can’t let off.”
UNLV kept the heat on Air Force, winning the second half by 11 and breaking a six-game losing streak at the academy with a 59-38 victory before 4,020.
The Falcons (9-11) remain winless in seven Mountain West Conference games.
“We talked about that,” said UNLV senior forward Joe Darger. “We knew they hadn’t won a conference game. At the same time, our seniors and the coaching staff had never won a game at Air Force.
“This one meant a lot to us.”
UNLV (17-4, 5-2 in the league) won its fourth consecutive game since that underwhelming performance in Fort Collins, Colo., against the Rams.
It did it with defense, in one of the Rebels’ more impressive 40-minute efforts with their backs to the basket.
For the fourth time this season, UNLV kept a foe from shooting 40 percent from the field in both halves -– that also happened at UNR and at Louisville, and at home against Texas-Pan American.
The Rebels are 4-0 in those games.
Fifth-year coach Lon Kruger stressed stopping Air Force’s pesky, relentless back cuts that have always resulted in bushels of easy backdoor layups.
Not this time around.
Kruger drilled his players on stopping what each Falcon did best, getting up in shooters’ faces and denying drives to those who prefer penetrating.
“Air Force does a great job executing, moving and cutting,” Kruger said. “I thought our guys played their people well … for the most part, we showed good awareness.”
UNLV, meanwhile, littered 30 3-point attempts on Air Force.
Darger, who finished with a game-high 18 points, went 4-for-9 beyond the arc.
Sophomore reserve guard Kendall Wallace, wearing teammate Scott Hoffman’s too-short white canvas high-tops, had 15 points on 5-for-9 long-range shooting.
Adams nailed a deep shot and finished with 13 points, his combined total from three previous defeats at Clune.
Minutes after the game, he had already received a few text messages from friends congratulating him on finally winning a game in Colorado Springs.
His buddies also pelted him with congrats after that first victory in Provo, Utah, against BYU, a couple of weeks ago.
Adams said he’s hoping to land another first –- a conference regular-season championship.
“A lot of guys did a great job on defense today,” Adams said. “We came in very focused. And Joe did a great job sagging in the middle, helping everybody out.”
The rudder for the Rebels was, and has been lately, sophomore guard Tre’Von Willis.
He played with a black sleeve over his right knee, after senior forward Rob Ketchum dove into it in practice late in the week, and wore black old-school low-tops.
He went 0-for-6 from the field, but he gave out a career-best 11 assists and had no turnovers.
Willis penetrated Air Force’s usually pesky 2-3 zone defense to draw attention, then he’d pass to teammates who had open looks out on the arc.
“I’m just feeling good,” Willis said. “It makes my job easier anytime teammates are making shots like that. They were giving us wide-open shots.”
Willis has 25 assists and only two turnovers over his past four games.
“I don’t know if I’m starting to dominate,” he said. “I’m figuring what I need to do well to play with my teammates. I didn’t need to be aggressive today. My teammates were making shots.
“All I wanted to do was draw one in and kick it.”
Willis lowered his head at allowing about the only Air Force backdoor cut for a layup, with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
“I was mad about that,” he said. “We contested on shooters, but we didn’t contest as much, we slid our feet, on drivers. We executed our game plan very well.”
That backdoor cut by Evan Washington cut the Falcons’ deficit to 20-15. Sammy Schafer sliced it to three a minute later when he sank two free throws.
But UNLV slapped Air Force with a second 8-0 run in the final seven minutes of the opening half and led, 29-19, at the break.
Spurred on by words from Adams and Rougeau, the Rebels rattled off 11 points in the first three minutes of the second half to take a 40-24 lead and force Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds to call a timeout.
Wallace, 14-for-24 from 3-point range in his past six games, punctuated that opening spurt with a 3-pointer from the left side.
Adams and Darger sank 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions with about 3 1/2 minutes left, for a 56-35 edge, and Kruger went to his bench.
That’s when Hoffman, whose parents flew in from Kansas to watch the game, hit a 3-point shot from the left corner to make it 59-35.
“Everyone’s coming out of their shell now,” Adams said. “All it took was a couple games to get the chemistry down. I think BYU was a good start.
“’Tre’ is playing well now. Kendall is shooting well. Now we can go deep in our bench and get some more guys comfortable. Whenever we can play 10, 11 guys, it’s always good for us.”