Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 | 2:15 a.m.
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Ryan Greene, Christine Killimayer and Ray Brewer discuss a busy day in UNLV athletics, including the hoops squad's resounding 76-71 victory over No. 16 Louisville at the Mack and the football team's sendoff to coach Mike Sanford and its 16 seniors coming in the form of a 28-24 come-from-behind victory at home over San Diego State.
It wasn’t the best first half Saturday afternoon for UNLV junior guard Tre'Von Willis, but he capped it with a flourish and had a sterling second half.
As a freshman at Memphis, he hit double digits in scoring once, with 12 points in a home game against Tulane.
Last season, his first as a Rebel, Willis had a scintillating four-game stretch – all victories – in which he racked up 25 assists and only turned it over twice.
To start that span, he had 48 points, 14 assists and the two turnovers in three games.
With 55 points in his past three games, Willis has shown why he was deserved of some preseason All-Mountain West Conference recognition.
On a deep team, Willis just might be the rudder on which sixth-year coach Lon Kruger will depend.
He had 16 points, 9 assists and 6 boards against Louisville.
In a tough one three games ago against the sticky Southern Illinois Salukis, Willis displayed his determination and grit with a career-high 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
He’s hit 20 of 33 shots from the field, nailed 12 of 14 free throws, collected 19 rebounds and 16 assists, stolen two passes and blocked a shot over his past three games.
Willis has turned it over 10 times in that span, and the first half Saturday wasn’t one of his best.
But he was plenty busy at both ends of the court.
He played tight defense on Louisville senior point guard Edgar Sosa, making it difficult for the Cardinals to get going and a reason why they fell into a 19-point hole against the Rebels.
Willis also helped UNLV break a full-court, trapping defense by the Cards with regularity.
He scored inside on the right side to give the Rebels a 7-4 lead three minutes into the game, then he lost the ball out of bounds along the right sideline on the next possession.
Later, Willis traveled. But on the next play, he broke down Louisville’s 3-2 zone defense to feed center Darris Santee for a strong dunk that played to the rowdy crowd of 14,390.
Santee got fouled, and he hit the ensuing free throw for a 12-8 advantage.
Willis sank a 3-point shot just left of the top of the key to give UNLV a 30-22 lead.
He was whistled for an intentional foul when officials caught him grabbing Jerry Smith’s jersey. But Smith missed both technical free throws and the Cards didn’t score on the possession.
With 2:20 left in the first half, Willis missed a free throw, his first in 19 attempts at the line this season. On UNLV’s next possession, he lost control of the ball.
But Willis found himself with the ball in the waning seconds of the half, and he drove in for a banker on the left side the fell through just before the buzzer for a 40-30 lead for UNLV.
Six minutes into the second half, Willis drove in through the right side and got fouled, causing Kruger to rise from his chair and shake both fists at the toughness his team was showing.
Sophomore guard Oscar Bellfield, in particular, was savvy and strong in breaking down Louisville’s press on that play, which led to Willis’s trio of points.
The Rebels had a comfortable 53-34 edge.
A minute later, Willis was subbed out and Louisville started ripping off a devastating run.
By the time he went back in, the Cards were within 11. He hit a free-throw jumper to pump it to 14, missed a layup and then connected with Derrick Jasper on one of their patented alley-oops.
That made it 62-56. Still, Louisville wouldn’t be denied. After Willis air-balled a 3-point attempt from the left side, Sosa made a 3-pointer to tie it, 62-62.
The Cardinals had made up a 19-point deficit in nine minutes.
“We missed some shots,” Willis said. “They were open and had some opportunities. But we’re the type of team that, they’ll fall the next time. We’ll keep grinding and grinding.”
Bellfield turned it around with eight points in a three-minute flurry, and Santee and Jasper played tight defense down the stretch.
Willis sealed it. He grabbed a rebound under his glass and got fouled, and his free throw gave UNLV a 74-66 lead.
His two free throws with 15.8 seconds left put the Rebels up, 76-68, and Sosa canned a desperation bomb at the buzzer for the final margin.
Willis leads the Rebels with a 16-point average, and he’s shooting 24-for-33 inside the 3-point arc. He’s making an outlandish 92 percent of his free throws, which he has been working on for months.
Watch him closely on his next miss from the line; he doesn’t take them lightly. He’s second on the team in rebounding, with 26, and he has a team-best 21 assists.
“Our guards are very tough,” Willis said. “We try to make plays for each other and try to be aggressive, and try to get results.”
The toughest of them all might be the fourth-year junior, with all those tattoos, from Fresno. His value will be apparent as UNLV hits the road, at Arizona and at Santa Clara, this week for the first time this season.