Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 | 7:21 p.m.
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- Lopez's small efforts add up for UNLV (12-15-2011)
- Anthony Marshall closes out UNLV’s narrow victory (12-15-2011)
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 65, UTEP 54 (12-14-2011)
- Instant Analysis: Rebels should gain confidence by winning when not at their best (12-14-2011)
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CHICAGO — Quintrell Thomas doesn’t know what each game will bring.
But then there are games like UNLV’s 64-48 victory against No. 19 Illinois on Saturday at the United Center.
Thomas wasn’t a big part of the game plan, but once he got on the court, he forced his way into the rotation for the rest of the day.
“My whole thing is that you just control the things you can,” Thomas said. "Whenever the opportunity arises, then I have to deliver.”
Thomas delivered a season-high 13 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 19 minutes. Plus he played a key role in shutting down Illinois center Meyers Leonard.
“Oh my goodness, that was huge for us,” said forward Mike Moser, who led the team with 17 points and 11 rebounds. “He did just about everything for us for a long stretch of time.”
Thomas’ first key stretch started with just more than seven minutes remaining in the first half and the game tied. At that point, UNLV’s other frontcourt players had already established their dominance.
And on defense, the Rebels’ double-teams against Illinois big men Leonard and Tyler Griffey were working to perfection.
“We knew we were taking a chance by doubling Leonard and Griffey to start the game, and yet we didn’t want Leonard to get going early,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “But the scary thing about that was how capable they are from (three-point range).”
Leonard picked up three early assists passing out of the pressure, but then Illinois went cold from long distance, finishing the game 7-of-25 behind the three-point line and shooting 25 percent overall.
How much credit for that goes to UNLV’s defense or to Illinois just missing shots is debatable, but it at least started with the Rebels forcing the Illini into those looks in lieu of anything inside.
“(Credit) goes a lot to our coaching staff,” Moser said. “Our scouting this week was just incredible. We knew just about everything they were about to do, we were able to switch about every move they had. Just couldn’t do much against us.”
Leonard, who’s listed at 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds, finished with seven points and six rebounds.
“He’s of course a great player, but he’s tall and long,” Thomas said. “Me and Brice, for example, we’re both close to 250 (pounds), so our center of gravity is lower so we’re able to push him off the block a lot more than I’m guessing he’s used to.”
Thomas’ first basket was a short jumper that put UNLV up 19-17. Illinois’ D.J. Richardson, who played with Lopez at Findlay Prep, answered with a 3-pointer that lifted the Illini back into the lead.
But on the next possession, there was Thomas again, countering with another short-range jumper that put the Rebels back up 21-20. UNLV led the rest of the game.
“It definitely feels good just finally showing some resemblance of how I used to play,” Thomas said.
Thomas scored a career-high 19 points at New Mexico last February. Since then, he’s been unable to find any consistency, or even consistent court time.
That’s what makes this outbreak surprising to outsiders. Inside the program, though, it doesn’t come as a shock.
“No, because we always know he has it in him,” Moser said. “We all have a lot of faith in each other, and when somebody gets cookin’, we make sure we give them the ball. He definitely was cookin’.”
Rice said this game wasn’t so much about getting revenge for last year’s NCAA Tournament loss as it was getting over the loss last week at Wisconsin. The team was “frustrated” by its effort in that game. So imagine how frustrating it had to be watching that and not getting a chance to help, as Thomas did.
His efforts Saturday likely ensured that he won’t see a “0” under his minutes-played column anymore.
Thomas said he hasn’t been upset this season because the team is doing well, but it obviously is better to be a key part of the victory than mostly a spectator — especially an important win like this one.
UNLV now has two “neutral” victories against name brand, power programs, furthering the Rebels' presence on a national level.
“You get the feeling around the country that everybody wants to love us,” Thomas said, “but we’ve got to give them a reason to.”
Similarly, you get the feeling that the coaching staff wants to help Thomas and give him important minutes.
He just gave them a reason to.