Saturday, March 6, 2010 | 9:03 p.m.
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Ryan Greene and Case Keefer take a quick look at UNLV's 74-56 Saturday blasting of Wyoming at the Mack, then look forward to the Rebels' third meeting of the season with pesky Utah ... and beyond.
After clearing one last regular season hurdle, Tre'Von Willis may as well have been foaming at the mouth on Saturday afternoon.
A 74-56 ripping of Wyoming at the Thomas & Mack Center, combined with Colorado State's 76-67 triumph over Utah some 800 miles east in Fort Collins, set the Rebels up to face the Utes in Thursday's quarterfinal round of the Mountain West tournament.
The game, played on UNLV's home floor, will be the third meeting between the two clubs this season. The Rebels' star junior guard couldn't help but flash a nice grin when talking about it.
The Utes, of course, are the only MWC team that Lon Kruger's squad has yet to beat this season.
"Me, personally, I'm very prideful," he said. "So I wouldn't have it any other way."
Willis & Co. will be heading into the league tournament after playing about as well as they could have hoped to in a four-game stretch to close out the season against the four teams in the bottom of the conference standings.
The Rebels (23-7 overall, 11-5 MWC) dispatched of the Cowboys (10-20, 3-13) in much the same fashion they did their previous two opponents. UNLV hounded Wyoming early on the defensive end, turned sweltering defense into easy offense and then successfully kept the steering wheel straight while on cruise control.
"Turnovers in the first half were a big key to the game, because we scored off of their turnovers," Kruger said. "Anytime you do that, it can create a bit of a margin, which we had at halftime."
UNLV led comfortably at the break, 44-23, after Wyoming turned the ball over 16 times in the game's first 20 minutes. The Cowboys, whose roster has been depleted throughout the year for various reasons, lost point guard JayDee Luster to a pulled groin at the break, and it was mere insult to injury at that point.
"When you think of Runnin' Rebel basketball, that's what you normally think of — pressuring the other team, making them very uncomfortable and making them handle the ball and do different things," Willis said. "They only had a couple of ball-handlers tonight, so we really wanted to disrupt them and do different things and definitely bother them."
On the other end, everyone got in on the act, starting with Willis. The Rebels' leading scorer on the season tallied a team-high 20 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.
Meanwhile, sophomore forward Chace Stanback had 13 points and nine rebounds, while sophomore point guard Oscar Bellfield tallied seven points on top of his eight assists — compared to just one turnover — and four rebounds.
As a team, the Rebels were 31-of-63 from the floor, out-rebounded Wyoming 39-32 and recorded 23 assists and nine steals. It was the fourth consecutive blowout for the Rebels, who finished the regular season by winning their final four games by an average margin of 23.8 points.
The afternoon was capped for UNLV by seniorSteve “Chop” Jones hitting a baseline jumper to bring those remaining from a crowd of 14,116 to their feet in a roar.
And as soon as the clock struck zeroes, all attention in the building seemed to shift to the Utes, who after winning the MWC tourney a year ago at the Mack finished up the regular season 14-16 overall and just 7-9 in league play. They're also the only group in the conference that the Rebels have yet to beat this season.
The two will collide in the final game of the day on Thursday, tipping off at about 8:30 p.m.
In the first meeting, Utah prevailed in Vegas, 73-69, behind hot 3-point shooting from pesky freshman Marshall Henderson and a career night from 7-foot-3 sophomore center David Foster. Foster is now out, presumably for the rest of the season, with an ankle injury suffered recently.
The next time around, the Rebels looked as sluggish as they had all season in a 66-61 defeat in Salt Lake City. Despite 32 points from Willis, UNLV couldn't get in sync all night in a loss that put them firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Now, the Rebels need to get the best of the Utes to solidify their status as an at-large candidate for the field of 65.
"Any team we play, I feel like it's going to mean a lot, anyways," Stanback said. "Even though it's Utah, we're still looking forward to the challenge."