AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
Sunday's 76 Classic Match-ups
10:30 A.M. DePaul vs. Stanford (Loser's Bracket/Not Televised)
1:00 P.M. Cal State Northridge vs. Tulsa (Loser's Bracket/ESPNU)
3:00 P.M. Oklahoma State vs. Murray State (Winner's Bracket/ESPNU)
6:00 P.M. UNLV vs. Virginia Tech (Winner's Bracket/ESPN2)
ANAHEIM, Calif. — After returning to their hotel room following Thursday night's victory over Tulsa, Chace Stanback offered some simple advice to his road trip roommate, Quintrell Thomas.
"With me in foul trouble once again, he said 'Hey man, it can't stay bad forever, I went through my troubles, too (after transferring),'" Thomas recalled. "You've gotta go through your growing pains."
In the fifth game of the season, the UNLV sophomore forward showed that his might be mostly behind him after five games.
Stanback led the Rebels (5-0) with 19 points in Friday's 69-55 throttling of Murray State in the winner's bracket semifinals of the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center. As a team, UNLV forced 13 first half turnovers and held the upper hand from start to finish, cruising into Sunday's 6 p.m. title game against Virginia Tech (4-1).
All the while, Thomas was the team's anchor in the frontcourt, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, six rebounds and two blocks. The 6-foot-8 Kansas transfer picked up four fouls, but two were late in the game with the outcome in the bag. His 24 minutes on the floor were by far a season-high.
Defensively, he appeared to have a better feel for when to be aggressive and when to lay off. He played 11 first half minutes without being whistled for a foul.
Most importantly, though, was that he saw how key he can be to UNLV's success moving forward.
"I was feeling a little down because I felt like I was letting my teammates down," he said. "I feel more comfortable. In the beginning, I felt like I was a little out of sync with my teammates, but now I feel like I'm fitting in a little better."
Thomas had averaged only 8.7 minutes in each of UNLV's previous three games due mostly to foul trouble. After going scoreless and without a rebound in last Saturday's win against Wisconsin, he said the game still needed to slow down for him after sitting out a full year without playing in a live game.
On Friday, he said things in just the course of a week felt more natural.
It certainly showed.
Mixed into that stat line were a pair of nice mid-range jumpers at key moments and two momentum-swinging blocked shots.
He looked like simply another piece in a free-flowing unit.
The Rebels set the tone early on against the Racers (3-2) by flashing out and applying heavy perimeter pressure on the defensive end. Murray State's veteran backcourt tandem of Isacc Miles and B.J. Jenkins had trouble establishing any offensive sets, falling victim to several traps and double-teams.
The Racers made it appear as though they wanted to take the air out of the ball and extend possessions, but the Rebels never allowed it.
"In talking to our guys, if we felt like we could keep them from being comfortable in the half-court and keep them from doing the things they wanted to at the pace they wanted to, that would be our objective," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. "Generally, we did a pretty good job of that, being disruptive and causing some havoc, and turning that into offense at the other end."
UNLV got contributions from seemingly everyone in a first half, which was played at a speed that clearly made Murray State flustered.
The Rebels converted the Racers' 13 giveaways in the first 20 minutes into 16 points.
"They like to play fast-paced too, but I felt like our defensive pressure kind of stirred them up," UNLV guard Anthony Marshall said. "They haven't really seen that, I don't think, and we take pride with our depth. We have a lot of interchangeable guys, so you can go out there and exhaust yourself as much as you can, have somebody come in and they're going to keep up the tempo."
The second half Thursday night against Tulsa was an up-and-down ride for UNLV, leading by as many as 17 points and allowing the Golden Hurricane to get back to within five before winning by nine.
Like Tulsa, Murray State didn't go away after the break, but the Rebels made it a strong 40-minute effort and never allowed the Racers to get too close.
UNLV sent a major defensive message right at the beginning of the half. Following an Oscar Bellfield turnover, Marshall made an über-athletic play in recovering from a chase for the loose ball to swat Isaiah Canaan's layup attempt from behind in transition.
The rejected gimme was symbolic of the night for Murray State on offense. The Racers were just 16-of-46 (34.8 percent) from the floor.
Meanwhile, Stanback and Thomas helped lead the offensive effort down the stretch as the Rebels shut the door.
Stanback scored a game-high 19 points, including 12 off 4-of-4 shooting in the second half. In two games in Anaheim, he's continued his breakthrough start to the year, hitting 13 of his 15 shot attempts.
Oscar Bellfield had 10 points and six assists, while Derrick Jasper's 10 points included two tough, game-clinching late layups.
"I thought we finished the game a little sharper tonight," Kruger said. "I thought we made better plays down the stretch, finished some opportunities, where last night we kind of let them back based on some things that maybe we didn't do. I think we learned from last night, and that's good."
As for Thomas, he picked a perfect time to bust out of his funk.
Upon transferring to UNLV, he was asked to fill the role of the tough inside presence that the Rebels have lacked consistently over the past few seasons.
On Sunday, they'll face a team full of bruisers.
Virginia Tech's 56-51 victory over Oklahoma State earlier in the day was far from pretty, but came in true Hokies fashion.
After setting a slugfest tempo and confusing the Cowboys with a 1-3-1 zone defense, they got just enough offense to win the physical affair. They held Oklahoma State to 28.8 percent shooting and drew 25 fouls.
"Going forward in the season, we need a team to test us like that," Thomas said of Virginia Tech. "In the past, we've been out-matched (by teams like VT). So, I mean, it's a good early test (to prepare) for conference games coming up, Kansas State, teams like that."