Saturday, March 13, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer do their best in trying to re-live a night to remember at the Mountain West Conference tournament, which was capped by UNLV advancing to the title game with a 70-66 victory over BYU. Plus, a look ahead to the championship tilt between the Rebels and San Diego State, who UNLV has had a tougher time matching up with this season than any other league opponent.
It was quite possibly the most significant night in the 11-year history of Mountain West Conference men's basketball, with four NCAA tournament-bound teams playing in two hotly-contested semifinals in front of the first sellout crowd in league tournament history.
The Rebels' star put away six of his team's seven points in the final minute, pushing UNLV into today's 4 p.m. tournament championship game against San Diego State with a 70-66 victory over the No. 14 Cougars.
"I love competition, and in everybody's eyes, (Fredette) is the best player in the conference. I take that kind of personally," Willis said of the fellow first-team all-league guard. "I definitely looked to coach, he definitely looked in my eyes and I definitely was ready."
Willis finished with a team-high 18 points on just 5-of-9 shooting and was 6-of-6 from the free throw line.
Fredette scored a game-high 30 points, but he wasn't nearly as efficient as he was in scoring 45 in Thursday's 95-85 quarterfinal victory against TCU.
The 30 points were as hard-earned as you'll find. The junior super-scorer was just 7-of-20 from the floor, and a night after he attempted 24 free throws against the Horned Frogs, was visibly frustrated that more of UNLV's hounding defensive efforts weren't cut short with whistles.
"I wanted to do my best to limit him, make him take the most guarded, tough shots as possible, and he got 30. But we did a pretty good job," Willis said of the efforts put forth by himself, Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and others. "You have to stay down, not go for any pump-fakes, because he's kind of crafty. Like I said, we did a good job."
However, early on, it looked like just about anyone on the floor was going to be able to score 30 points if they so much as took off their warm-ups.
The two teams combined to sink nine 3-pointers in the game's first six minutes. And with BYU leading 17-14 after that flurry of jumpers, Fredette hit a shot in close to push the Cougars' lead to five points.
After that, the Rebels' used a variety of methods to construct a 9-0 run, capped by a mid-range shot from Bellfield.
With the lead in hand, UNLV tightened the screws across the board on the defensive end — especially on Fredette and senior sharp-shooter Jonathan Tavernari.
The Rebels held the upper hand until late, when Fredette and Palo Verde High grad, Michael Loyd Jr., helped orchestrate an 8-0 run to put the Cougars ahead, 61-59, with 2:51 to play.
In that spurt, Fredette began to shake loose, hitting an NBA-range 3-pointer atop the key to make it a 59-56 game, then tying it with three free throws after being fouled on another deep attempt.
Meanwhile, UNLV had endured a decent offensive drought, which sophomore forward Chace Stanback then ended with an 18-foot baseline jumper to even things up and again awaken a crowd filled with far more scarlet than blue.
It set the stage for Willis's biggest offensive moment of the night.
With the Rebels holding a one-point edge still, Willis took the ball from Bellfield on the left wing and had an isolated one-on-one with Cougar guard Jackson Emery.
From there, Willis lowered his head, charged forward with the ball and hit an off-balance bank shot in close to push UNLV ahead by three.
"Tre'Von's their go-to-guy," Emery said. "I did my best to get up in him and make it hard, but he's a good player and he's gonna make good shots sometimes."
What made it all that much more impressive for Willis was that he had to leave the game momentarily earlier in the second half after injuring his left ankle, which was heavily iced in the locker room afterward.
"We always expect him to come through for us," Stanback said. "He's our warrior. He's our leader. We follow him. Whatever he does is positive for our team."
Five free throws from there on — four from Willis and another from Massamba — sealed UNLV's eighth consecutive victory against BYU at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Stanback and Massamba both had monster nights for the Rebels. Stanback finished with 17 points and six rebounds, while Massamba scored a career-high 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting to go with six boards of his own.
Those points didn't come easy for UNLV's emerging interior force. Several times early, he took BYU's big men off the dribble and scored tough buckets inside with little space to spare.
"He's starting to get more comfortable, more confident in finishing opportunities in the post," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "A big part of our having a lead at halftime was Brice's play in the first half."
Bellfield had nine assists, and in three games this season against UNLV's biggest rival, he has posted a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Loyd was the only other Cougar in double figures with 11 points, while Tavernari — a Bishop Gorman product — missed out on his last shot to beat the Rebels at the Mack. He was held to just four points on 1-of-5 shooting and no rebounds in 17 minutes.
And even though only two of the four teams that took the floor on Friday night advanced, it's hard to tell if anyone really lost.
The biggest winner may have been the Mountain West as a whole.
The games were every bit as high-quality as anything you'd find in any other league's postseason conference, only helping boost the league's fledgling hoops credibility.
"There's a lot of talent in this league," Stanback said. "I think people don't really realize that."
So what is left to play for on Saturday, when UNLV (25-7) and SDSU (24-8) meet for the tournament title?
Both the Rebels and Aztecs have already solidified their NCAA tourney resumés and now are playing for seeding.
On the UNLV side, the Rebels would probably like to set themselves up to avoid being either an eight- or nine-seed in the NCAAs, which could lead to a potential second-round match-up against a top-seeded club.
A win on Saturday more than likely gets that accomplished.
Coincidentally, it comes against the team which UNLV has had the toughest time matching up against this season.
White scored a career-high 28 points in SDSU's semifinal win, as the Aztecs advanced to the league championship game as a four-seed for the second consecutive season. Last year, they fell to Utah, 52-50.
The two split the regular season series, with UNLV knocking off SDSU in Las Vegas on Jan. 13, 76-66, then falling to Steve Fisher's squad on the road on Feb. 13, 68-58.
The biggest area of concern for UNLV will be in the rebounding department. In the two meetings combined, the Rebels were out-boarded 83-65.
"Earlier in the season when we played them, that's when we were really struggling rebounding the ball," Willis said. "We're a totally different team now, and we are gonna try to take the fight to them, and rebounding is definitely gonna be a key for us.
"Right now, we feel like we have some unfinished business. And we feel like this is our building. Even though it says Mountain West out there on the floor, we still know this is a Runnin' Rebel building and we're definitely trying to defend it."