David Proeber / AP
Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
His coy grin while saying so gave away the truth.
In UNLV's first true road test of the 2010-11 season, the Rebels won in a landslide, slamming the Redbirds 82-51 after pulling away for good midway through the first half.
It was also a glimpse at what life will be like for the team in hostile road environments moving forward this season, as Willis was taunted relentlessly for a bulk of the game by the ISU students, who chanted and screamed insults regarding the Rebels senior guard’s off-season legal troubles.
What was proven, though, was that opposing fans doing so will likely be fanning flames.
Not only did Willis clearly feed off of the vitriol being slung at him, but the entire team did, too.
“Tre is Tre, and we know how Tre is going to play, how he’s going to react to certain things,” sophomore guard Justin Hawkins said. “All of those negative things going through Tre are just going to feed him positively. Us, as a team, we feed off of Tre, feed off of each other, and you see that on the court.”
Added junior forward Chace Stanback: “Yeah, we heard a few of them. He likes to feed off of everything, any type of energy he can get, no matter whether it’s negative or positive. We like him for that.”
Willis didn’t have a particularly outstanding night compared to his teammates but, again, was simply part of the machine that has been this group so far in the 2010-11 season.
ISU (5-2) jumped out to an early 6-2 lead behind two buckets inside from sophomore leading scorer Jackie Carmichael. The Redbirds did a good job of avoiding UNLV’s backcourt pressure defense by relying on lengthy outlet passes to get its offense sped up instead of running mostly half-court sets.
That didn’t work for long, though, as UNLV (7-0) woke up offensively out of the game’s first full break.
Stanback, the Rebels’ top offensive threat this season, adjusted his game to make himself more effective closer to the basket against the Redbirds’ inexperienced post players. He scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half.
Junior guard Oscar Bellfield gave UNLV its first lead at 9-8 with 14:11 left in the first half, and the Rebels never looked back. That was the start of a 9-0 run that also included scores by Willis and senior guard Derrick Jasper.
UNLV pushed ahead by 17 points at the half then opened the second stanza up on a 13-3 run that forced ISU to ultimately relent on the defensive end. The game’s final 15 minutes resembled a pick-up game, as the outcome was already determined and ISU let its younger benchwarmers mop up the garbage minutes.
“The guys, in a pretty methodical way, were pretty consistent from start to finish,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “We didn’t quite have the trap opportunities that we did in other situations, which isn’t totally surprising on the road, but these guys consistently stayed after it, built it gradually throughout, it seemed like.”
In a game that could be seen by outsiders as a trap — coming off of an emotional tournament victory, long travel, cold weather, non-televised — the Rebels found early motivation before even suiting up.
On Tuesday, when heading into the Thomas & Mack Center locker room before leaving for the trip, the players were greeted with the all-black uniforms that they had been lobbying years for.
“The last couple of years, even before I came here and would just come and watch games and be in the locker room, they talked about wanting black uniforms, and we finally got them,” sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said. “If we would have lost tonight, we probably wouldn’t have worn them again, so we’re happy to get the win with them so we can continue to wear them.”
As for the in-game motivation, Willis did a good job of avoiding making eye contact with the students across from the UNLV bench who were so desperately trying to get into his head and force miscues.
There was one instance, late in the first half, when an ISU turnover occurred just in front of said section. Willis happened to be right in front of them, and before turning to head back up the court, he looked over and clapped his hands several times.
Still, after the game, he remained mum on what was hurled at him and the couple of signs being held up for him to see.
“Hear what? I don’t even know what they were saying. I didn’t see nothing,” he said. “Our job is to play basketball. I don’t know about nothing else not associated with basketball.
“We played well, we came in here and did what we expected to do.”
What those fans were treated to was yet another UNLV victory that was just as dominant on paper as it looked from the stands.
Marshall led the Rebels with 15 points, doing all of his scoring in the second half. Stanback and Jasper each scored 12, with the two combining for 13 rebounds. Bellfield tallied 11, hitting three of the team’s five 3-pointers.
Willis played 14 of his 23 minutes before halftime, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and three assists across from no turnovers. After a few minutes into the second half, the ISU students had turned their attention to the refs and away from him.
As a team, UNLV out-rebounded ISU 44-30, forced 16 turnovers and held the Redbirds to just 36.4 percent shooting. It marked the fifth time in seven games in which a Rebels opponent has shot below 40 percent from the floor.
“Coach talked to us before the game, told us just to come out and do what we’ve done the past five games,” said Hawkins, who had eight points and five boards. “Us having so much experience coming back this year, we knew how to handle it coming into the game. I just felt like as a team, we started off slow the first couple of minutes but knew how to pick it up right away, and that’s what we did.”
Breathing room on the schedule doesn’t greet the Rebels just yet, either.
After a quick turnaround gave them basically 36 hours at home before heading east, they bused two hours to Chicago after the game and will fly back to Las Vegas on Thursday morning. Then, after about another 24 hours, the Rebels head to Reno for Saturday night’s showdown with struggling in-state rival UNR.
Surely, the atmosphere there won’t be much friendlier.
Willis and the Rebels don’t seem too concerned.
“This is where teams grow — through the adversity, through the travel, miles away, being away from your comfort zones,” he said. “So far, we’re 1-0 (on the road). The tournament’s behind us. We said we want to come back home 2-0.”