Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer break down yet another blowout win for the suddenly-surging Rebels, who easily dispatched of TCU on Wednesday night, 78-62. UNLV was again well-rounded on the offensive end, hounding on the defensive end and now finds itself in third place in the Mountain West Conference as a result.
UNLV played Wednesday night like a team trying to seize an opportunity that was at its fingertips.
That's because there was one, as the Rebels' 78-62 trouncing of TCU at the Thomas & Mack Center, combined with an 82-68 BYU victory over San Diego State moments earlier in Provo, put Lon Kruger's club in third place in the Mountain West Standings via tiebreaker over the Aztecs.
Did the Rebels take the floor actually knowing about the Cougars' triumph up north, though? Even if they did, they'll never tell.
"I don't even know — what happened?" freshman guard Justin Hawkins said with a smile after scoring four points and dishing out five assists for UNLV. "We just worry about our game, that's all. (The coaching staff) didn't tell us anything about what happened up there. We just focused on TCU tonight."
And with those blinders on, combined with never-ending defensive pressure and some more hot shooting out of the gates, the Rebels ran away in what equated to their second laugher in five days.
The Rebels (21-7 overall, 9-5 Mountain West) were 31-of-59 from the floor, with Chace Stanback and Tre'Von Willis leading the way, scoring 16 points apiece. Led by Oscar Bellfield's seven dishes with no turnovers, UNLV registered 25 assists on those 31 field goals made.
On the flip side, TCU (12-16, 4-9) turned the ball over 21 times — including seven giveaways in the first four minutes — and looked like a mess for much of the evening.
After leading comfortably at the half, 40-25, UNLV didn't let up, applying consistent full-court pressure early in the second half to expand the margin to as wide as 31 points. In fact, for a good stretch, TCU had problems simply inbounding the ball under its own hoop, as the Horned Frogs were out of timeouts with more than 11 minutes to play.
"I thought our pressure in the full-court was good. It was solid, it was active; there wasn't a lot of risk in terms of giving up a lot on the other end in terms of taking too many chances," Kruger said. "I thought the five guys were pretty engaged and played with pretty good awareness defensively."
While Kruger saw TCU's frustrations from the bench, his players could sense it in an up-close-and-personal fashion.
"I could tell by the facial expressions," Stanback said.
The reason for the excessive pressure was TCU's lack of adept ball-handlers outside of bullish sophomore point guard Ronnie Moss.
Moss led all scorers with 25 points, but was forced into four turnovers.
"We wanted to get up there and bother him, make him tired and fluster him a little bit," said Willis, who finished with three of UNLV's 13 steals. "It worked out for us."
Meanwhile, just like it did early and often in Saturday's 70-39 thrashing of Colorado State, stellar defensive pressure turned into crisp — and sometimes easy — offense for the Rebels.
UNLV scored 24 points off of TCU foibles, and everyone got into the act.
In the first half, while TCU was frantically recovering from a bevy of miscues, Kendall Wallace hit a trio of 3-pointers to help create the initial separation on the scoreboard.
"We're just having fun out there, that's all," Hawkins said. "We like playing defense as a team. We try to see who gets the most steals or causes the most pressure turnovers or stuff like that.
"When that happens, it's just fun for us."
More important than anything is that the Rebels seem to have regained a significant chunk of their confidence and swagger after a three-game skid that had them on the ropes just a week ago following a 66-61 upset loss at Utah.
Now come two more opportunity to build up some confidence as the regular season draws to a close. The team's final two games before the conference tournament are against the two teams currently buried in the basement of the league standings.
That swing begins with a 12:30 p.m. tip at Air Force (9-17, 1-12) on Saturday. Then comes a mid-week stretch without game action, followed by a finale at home against Wyoming (9-18, 2-11) next Saturday at the Mack.
Whereas just a week ago things looked to be growing somewhat bleak, now momentum is right back in the Rebels' corner, as San Diego State's loss also only helped UNLV's case for a potential at-large bid into the NCAA tournament's field of 65.
In hindsight, the three-game losing streak might not have been the worst thing in the world, because while the UNLV players admit they still haven't completely forgotten about it, they use the memory of how they felt just seven days ago as motivation moving forward.
"It's still in the back of our minds," Hawkins said. "We just don't want to feel like that ever again. That second (loss, at SDSU), it was a bad loss. The third one (at Utah), we were demoralized. We just said, 'No more losses.'
"That's why it picked up the last two games, and we're just going to keep doing it the next game."