UNLV BASKETBALL:

Feeling better, Willis helps set the tone early and often

Sophomore guard’s 21 points, solid stat line another peak in hilly first season

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Justin M. Bowen

Tre’Von Willis throws it in for two against Colorado State on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels defeated Colorado State 89-70 for their second straight win.

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UNLV won its second straight game by double figures, beating Colorado State 89 to 70 on Saturday night.

UNLV vs. Colorado State

Tre'Von Willis blows past the Colorado State defense Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Rebels defeated Colorado State 89-70 for their second straight win.  Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

CSU POSTGAME: Not quite like last time

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Ryan Greene and Rob 'The Ostrich' Miech discuss UNLV's neat and tidy 89-70 revenge-fueled victory on Saturday night over Colorado State. The guys talk about the Rebels again successfully carrying out the '40 minutes of heck' plan of attack, Tre'Von Willis playing the hero again and take a look ahead to Wednesday's challenge at Wyoming.

Tre'Von Willis stood calm on Saturday night following UNLV's 89-70 victory over Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center, and he said his nagging right hamstring felt better.

Rebels coach Lon Kruger said after Willis' 21-point, six-assist, five-rebound showing that his sophomore guard looked like he was pretty close to 100 percent.

That's the thing, though. The terms 'hamstring injury' and 'nagging' go hand-in-hand.

Add it on top of a right shoulder woe he's battled all season -- on-and-off since his sophomore year of high school, actually -- and Willis will probably never be at full strength between now and the season's end.

Whatever percentage he's at right now, though, appears to be working just fine.

"It's very frustrating, because I feel like I can do more," he said. "Sometimes I do things like get a little turnover or a ball deflected here because I can't get the lift, the power out of my leg that should be there when it feels 100 percent.

"But I'm looking up, trying to play off of my teammates right now, get them open shots and defer a little more because I am banged up."

Willis soldiered through the worst of the hamstring injury against TCU on Tuesday, going for 11 points, five assists and four boards in 26 minutes that were a true labor of love.

"I thought Tre looked more active in practice yesterday," Kruger said. "Looked more comfortable without the injuries bothering him, I thought he looked like that tonight, as well."

To the casual viewer, Willis looked just as healthy as any other piece in Kruger's small-ball rotation, which involved Kendall Wallace and Mo Rutledge as the two primary subs.

Willis was a terror on the defensive end, finishing with two of UNLV's eight steals, pushed the tempo on offense and had no hesitation in working toward the basket aggressively.

His first five points of the night helped set the tone for one of UNLV's most efficient halves of the season. He scored the game's initial bucket off a nice inside feed from Oscar Bellfield, then hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to push the Rebels ahead 7-2 early on. UNLV never trailed.

By the half, UNLV was 20-of-31 from the floor, 8-of-11 from 3-point range and had recorded 15 assists to only two turnovers.

Willis was a model reflection of that consistency, with 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting, three helpers and no giveaways in 16 first-half minutes.

It was a stellar way to start a night in which he was playing in front of a dozen family members visiting Las Vegas for the weekend.

The Rebels were well on their way at that point to avenging yet another earlier conference loss. Had they shown up like they did in Fort Collins on Jan. 14 -- losing 71-69 in one of the Mountain West's biggest shockers this season -- life would be far from pleasant over the next few weeks.

"We knew our backs are against the wall, and maybe that's the way we like it, maybe it's a better challenge for us," he said. "We're trying to dictate and take other teams out of their comfort zones."

Still, as much as Willis preaches the important of 'the team' and 'the unit', it's proven pretty true to this point that Willis is in many ways a mental and physical rudder for the Rebels. As he goes, in most instances, so goes the team. No one wears his emotions as visibly as Willis.

And he's earned plenty of respect from teammates in recent weeks, both battling through injuries and by providing consistent play out of the backcourt.

After Saturday's win, he now has 46 assists to 18 turnovers in 11 conference games.

"Maybe so," he responded when asked about being an emotional rudder. "I'm trying to be enthusiastic, get these guys going, bring some physicality and a great attitude."

Not the easiest thing to do with a right side of the body as knocked up as his.

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