Wednesday, March 18, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Rob Miech take a closer look at a performance in the first round of the NIT typical of UNLV's second half of the season -- close at the end, but not enough to get over the hump. The guys discuss what made for a historic, unique and insane atmosphere at Memorial Coliseum, what the Rebels learned from the season and its finale, plus some other tidbits from the final trip until next fall.
LEXINGTON, Ky. – UNLV’s basketball season was summed up in its final game Tuesday night against Kentucky in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
The Rebels shot 3-pointers and free throws poorly, dug themselves a hole, tried to make a stirring comeback but couldn’t quite pull it off in a 70-60 defeat to the Wildcats.
“It’s kind of the way it went all year, in terms of just not quite finding that little niche, spark or ingredient to get us over the edge,” said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. “The game kind of went that way. We didn’t quite get back over the edge.
“I think we’ll learn from it in the long run.”
The game was switched from Rupp Arena to the Wildcats’ old Kentucky home in the venerable Memorial Coliseum, where they played in the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s.
The state high school playoffs took precedence at Rupp, but the venue change created a wild atmosphere for 8,327 fans who saw the Wildcats play on the court for the first time since 1976.
“It was a lot of fun in there just to get a chance to play in one of the most storied buildings ever, maybe the most storied building, in my opinion, to ever host a basketball game,” said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie. “It was a quite an honor for our team. Our fans were unbelievable.”
A young UK official almost shook afterward. His grandfather had told him stories about games in the pearl of a gym. Now the official has a story for his grandkids.
“It was a neat experience,” Kruger said. “The fans were great. I think they really looked at it as a novelty, not just a basketball game. They got here early and were really into it.”
Kentucky (21-13) will play the winner of today’s Creighton-Bowling Green game in the second round of the NIT.
UNLV (21-11) flew home after the game with a checklist of what went wrong this season after it had won 17 of its first 21 games.
But the Rebels will take some solace in how they sliced a 20-point second-half deficit to three with about four minutes remaining.
“Anything’s possible, that’s for sure,” said UNLV senior swingman René Rougeau. “That’s the team I’m used to seeing out there on the court. If only we played like that in the first half, too, it would have been a different game.”
The first half, as has been the case over the past six weeks, was a debacle for the Rebels, who made three of 17 3-pointers and one of six free throws.
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky’s outstanding 6-foot-9 sophomore, ended it with a bang when he dunked Darius Miller’s close miss as the final second ticked off the clock.
That gave the Wildcats a 36-24 edge at halftime.
When UK scored the first six points of the second half, capped by 6-4 junior guard Jodie Meeks’s 3-pointer from the left side, Kruger called for a timeout.
The crowd sounded like it was three times its size as its cheers bounced off the decades-old, water-stained ceiling tiles.
“That was lots of fun,” said Rebels senior guard Wink Adams, who scored a team-high 14 points. “The UK fans got those chants going, and they were into the whole game. It was a fun environment.
“It’s always better when you win, but I enjoyed myself and we played hard to the end.”
The crowd’s explosion when Perry Stevenson dunked over UNLV senior Joe Darger might have been heard at Rupp, just a short drive away from Memorial.
“It was crazy,” Patterson said. “I just looked at him and he had this little pose that he always does standing over the player and I couldn't help but smile. That's Perry for you. He's a great leaper and a great dunker.”
Stevenson hit the ensuing free throw, and Kentucky had a 48-30 edge. Then Patterson’s jam made his fans shriek over a 20-point cushion. Patterson finished with 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
When former Cats coach Joe B. Hall was shown on a large television screen, the shrieking continued, as it did when Patterson sliced in for a layup in the final second of the shot clock for another 20-point lead.
UNLV senior Mo Rutledge canned a pair of 3-pointers to start the comeback. As he pointed out, though, they were sandwiched around his long air ball from the right corner.
“I just knew I had to come out and provide energy for my team,” Rutledge said. “I had that air ball, but I came back down and just had to keep shooting. That crowd was real crazy. It was real noisy in there.
“We had a couple of shot-clock violations, and it was because the crowd was so loud. We couldn’t hear and we weren’t able to see the shot clock.”
Freshman guard Oscar Bellfield drilled a 3-pointer, sophomore guard Kendall Wallace sank all three free throws after getting fouled beyond the arc and Adams sank a 3-point shot to cut UK’s lead to 56-47.
With 9:21 left, Gillispie called a timeout to regroup. But after a couple of baskets by Miller, the Wildcats went cold for four minutes.
That allowed UNLV to cut its deficit to 60-57 on a 3-pointer by Darger on the right side with 4:05 left.
Kentucky regained control on a free throw by Stevenson, Meeks’s 14-foot jump shot and two free throws by Meeks, who led everyone with 19 points.
After Meeks’s jumper, Bellfield, dribbling to his right, lost the ball when he stumbled. Turnover. Kentucky ball. Kruger, who watched the play unfold in front of him, was livid.
“Well, by rule, if Oscar was tripped it’s an automatic foul,” Kruger said. “If he wasn’t, it was the right call. We’ll look at the tape. If he was tripped it’s a very simple call at a critical stage in the game.
“We thought he was tripped. The official thought he wasn’t. We’ll see.”
Bellfield didn’t flinch.
“I got tripped up,” he said. “The ref said he didn’t see it … but it’s their house. Can’t blame them. You’ve got to expect that. I should have been more aggressive, but … ”
Kentucky scored 10 of the game’s final 13 points.
“We showed we weren’t giving up or giving in,” Rutledge said. “That 20-point deficit could have gone to 30 or 40, the way they were playing and Patterson was rebounding. I think it showed a lot of character that we were out there fighting.”
“Yeah, that’s big time character,” he said. “We really need to take this in and learn from it, and start better and execute better. There will be ups and downs, you just have to fight through it.
“We have to be tough and ride it out.”