Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 6 p.m.
- BOX SCORE: UNLV 78, Utah 58
- LIVE GAME BLOG: UNLV blasts Utah, 78-58, will face Air Force in MWC tournament quarterfinals
- Five Questions with UNLV coach Lon Kruger (3-4-2011)
- Kendall Wallace’s rehab takes next step as he rejoins Rebels on practice floor (3-3-2011)
- UNLV closes out home schedule in smooth fashion with 90-77 rout of Wyoming (2-27-2011)
- Quintrell Thomas gets UNLV over the hump in 77-74 overtime win at New Mexico (2-24-2011)
- Bellfield keys monster second half for UNLV in 68-61 win at Colorado State (2-20-2011)
- KATS REPORT: HBO’s ‘Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV’ effectively captures a moment in time (2-19-2011)
- UNLV lands commitment from high-powered scoring guard Dantley Walker (2-15-2011)
- 2010-11 UNLV Schedule
- All Sun UNLV men's basketball coverage
With that, a team that was on the ropes just a couple of weeks ago enters this week's Mountain West Conference tournament as winners of five straight, finishing up 23-7 overall and 11-5 in the league.
Though the regular season MWC crown continues to elude UNLV in the Lon Kruger era, given some of the hurdles and struggles the team had to overcome, a third place finish feels just fine for the Rebels.
"It's a breath of fresh air," sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas said. "It felt like before, every game we went into, we'd have to grind it out. Certain guys weren't doing certain things. Definitely, now that we've pulled it together, it feels good."
The stellar run to close out the regular season began after an ugly 49-42 win against Air Force on Feb. 15 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Following that game, the Rebels were so disappointed in their performance that their body language resembled that of a team that had just lost on its home floor.
Now, they'll get a third crack at the Falcons (15-14, 6-10) on Thursday night in an 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal matchup.
"That is definitely one of the games that I think nobody in the conference would find fun," Thomas joked, hinting at Air Force's slow-it-down mentality. "But we need to just come out and take care of business. You see what happened to Colorado State (at Air Force last week, losing by 17). You can't count them out, because they're one of those teams that holds the ball for 35 seconds (at a time), they string the game out and, the next thing you know, they're in it."
If UNLV does to Air Force on Thursday what it's done in the first half to each of its last three opponents, the Rebels could be in good shape.
Another strong opening 20 minutes helped them bury struggling Utah (13-17, 6-10) early. UNLV hit its first eight shots of the game, dominated on the glass and puzzled the Utes defensively early on.
By the time the two teams hit the locker room, UNLV was 19-of-31 from the floor, 5-of-6 from 3-point range and had out-rebounded Utah 27-10. Josh Watkins scored six of the Utes' seven first half field goals, as the hosts looked like a team without much desire to fight back.
In their last three first halves, UNLV is shooting 61.6 percent overall (53-of-86) and 61.5 percent from the outside (16-of-26).
"We wanted to come out and set a tone right from the beginning, and we felt like we did that," sophomore guard Anthony Marshall said. "The second half, we really didn't do the things that we did in the first half, but in that first half we felt like we played excellent basketball."
Marshall was sent to the locker room briefly in the first half after butting heads with Watkins while working around a screen near mid-court. He was dropped to the floor with blood gushing from his nose.
He didn't suffer a break, and with a bit of tape covering the nasty gash, Marshall returned late in the opening stanza. Right after the break, he scored five quick points, helping send the message that there would be no wild comeback for Utah or a letdown by UNLV.
Lon Kruger was able to even out the minutes in the second half with the game in hand, getting the reserves some extra run.
Thomas, Oscar Bellfield and Tre'Von Willis each scored 12 points for UNLV, while Marshall and Carlos Lopez scored six apiece. Thomas, Willis and Chace Stanback combined for 24 boards, and as a team, they out-rebounded the Utes 47-26 — by far their widest margin of the season.
They hit 29 of 59 shot attempts and eight of 12 3-point tries.
In all, the Rebels left the Huntsman Center satisfied not just with their performance on the afternoon, but with the two-week stretch to close out the season that got them feeling like themselves again.
"We've been preaching practicing and preparing to play like this every single day. That's what's paying off," Willis said. "I feel like we're where we wanted to be, all things considered. We're going to keep doing whatever we're doing. If we do that, we feel like we'll be fine.
"(Against Air Force) we're gonna come out and try to do the same thing."
If they could do that, it would be another convincing sign that UNLV has turned a corner following a rough middle portion of the MWC season.
UNLV won that meeting a few weeks back despite shooting just 33.3 percent, 14.3 percent from deep and turning the ball over 15 times.
"It's a tournament, so they're going to be excited about anyone," Kruger said. "Having not played as well as we wanted to the last time against Air Force at home should intrigue them a little bit. They don't need to change anything from what they've done the last couple or three weeks.
"We're playing over those two weeks with as much confidence as we have, certainly in conference play. We've shot it well during that period and they've worked hard defensively. Guys feel as good as we have, but it's a new season."
The UNLV-Air Force tilt will be the last of Thursday's four quarterfinals at the Mack, with the winner facing whoever prevails between San Diego State and Utah on Friday night. On the other side of the bracket, BYU takes on the winner of Wednesday's play-in game between Wyoming and TCU, while Colorado State and New Mexico will square off in what will likely be the most entertaining game of the opening day.
What's different for UNLV entering the Mountain West tourney this year compared to the last couple is that the Rebels will go into it with a pocket full of house money, so to speak. After desperately needing first round wins the last two years to secure an NCAA tournament bid, they are safely in already this time around.
Getting caught up in that knowledge, though, could be dangerous, thus potentially breaking UNLV's impressive current stride.
"We don't worry about that," Willis said. "Our focus is on winning games. However it gets done, that doesn't really matter right now. It's about getting wins."