Happy Birthday to the Mack: Here are 10 memorable UNLV games we’re still celebrating

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R. Marsh Starks / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian coaches his final game with the Rebels at UNLV, a 65-53 win over Utah State on Tuesday, March 3, 1992.

Thomas & Mack Through The Years

Elton John & Tina Turner's concert grossed $3,054,000 on Dec. 30, 1999, making it the highest-grossing single concert for the Thomas & Mack. Launch slideshow »

This venue has a special spot in the hearts of locals, giving us some fond memories of our town’s unquestioned favorite team.

Whether the UNLV basketball team was playing a nationally televised games on a Saturday afternoon against a ranked foe, or a run-of-the-mill university such as San Jose State or Pacific in the old PCAA on a weeknight, locals flocked to the Thomas & Mack Center for the best show in a city known for its over-the-top productions.

The arena opened in November 1983. Today, we celebrate its 30th birthday by ranking some of the Rebels' more memorable games at the Mack.

But there are too many games to pick from. Take this one that didn’t make the cut:

On a late November day in 1991, one year after UNLV lost to Duke in the Final Four and when locals were still crazy for their Rebels, Shaquille O’Neal and LSU visited the Mack.

The Rebels had lost most of their key contributors from the back-to-back Final Four teams. The general consensus is they didn’t have an answer on the inside for the big and powerful Shaq.

Wrong.

Center Elmore Spencer had 20 points and 12 rebounds in his finest moment as a Rebel and UNLV won its signature game in Jerry Tarkanian’s final season rather convincingly, 76-55.

The victory was UNLV’s 34th straight at home, improving the Rebels’ record to 117-6 at the Mack since the building opened. The streak would grow to 59 straight home victories before losing in 1993 to Louisville.

Most nights, especially during Tark’s coaching tenure, played out similar to the LSU victory.

“They just whipped us in every part of the game,” LSU coach Dale Brown said after the game. “They outhustled us, they outrebounded us. They beat us totally.”

That hustle was fueled by the energy of the vocal home-court fans. The advantage they created — combined with Tarkanian’s talented and high-flying teams, of course — made the Rebels nearly unbeatable and one of the nation’s elite programs.

Here’s a look at some of the memorable all-time UNLV games, which are ranked by the Sun Sports Editor Ray Brewer. He started attending UNLV games at the Las Vegas Convention Center and was front-and-center during those glory years of UNLV dominance.

    • Record crowd watches Rebs beat Navy, “The Admiral”

      In UNLV’s 1986-87 Final Four season, the Rebels made an early-season statement by beating No. 12 Navy 104-79. The 20,321 is the largest attendance in Mack history. Navy was led by David Robinson, one of the best college players of all-time. But UNLV’s offense used the energy from the home court, receiving a school-best 21 assists from Mark Wade, 27 points from Armon Gilliam and 25 points from Freddie Banks. A Sun reporter described the crowd, which was more than 1,500 over the arena’s current capacity, as a fire hazard. Robinson was a non-factor, playing nine minutes and making just two shots because of foul trouble.

    • Patrick Ewing, Georgetown hand UNLV its first loss

      UNLV’s first loss at the Mack was a 69-67 overtime defeat to Georgetown less than two months after the arena opened. Georgetown and its all-everything center Patrick Ewing were a national title contender, meaning the game marked the most significant contest in the young arena’s brief history. Ewing scored 24 points for the Hoyas and David Wingate had 22. Later in the season, UNLV was eliminated 62-48 by Georgetown in an NCAA Tournament game the Rebels had no chance of winning, but a loud home crowd helped UNLV keep the score close in the first meeting.

    • Tark’s last game

      Tark’s Final Game as UNLV Coach

      UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian coaches his final game at the Rebels head coach at UNLV, a 65-53 win over Utah State March 3, 1992. Launch slideshow »

      After 19 years as the UNLV coach, taking the Rebels to four Final Fours and building the program into a national brand, Jerry Tarkanian’s last home game was March 3, 1992, against Utah State. The power struggle between Tarkanian and university President Dr. Robert Maxson took center stage over the Rebels’ 65-53 win for their 23rd straight victory. Fans had signs and T-shirts that read, ‘Keep Tark, Fire Maxson.’ It wound up being UNLV's last game of the season — it finished 26-2 overall, but was on probation and ineligible for the postseason. The Jerry Tarkanian soap opera was finally over. “Right now, we’re tired of it,” UNLV guard H Waldman said.

    • UNLV's Kevin Simmons (left) shows off his 1998 Western Athletic Conference tournament championship ring. Mark Dickel, the point guard on the title team, is at right.

      UNLV's Kevin Simmons (left) shows off his 1998 Western Athletic Conference tournament championship ring. Mark Dickel, the point guard on the title team, is at right.

      Four wins, four days

      More fans flocked to the Mack each night during the Rebels’ magical run to the 1998 Western Athletic Conference tournament championship, eventually packing the facility for a 56-51 win against New Mexico in the title game. The victory gave UNLV its first NCAA Tournament berth since the 1991 Final Four. Rebel basketball, at least for one weekend in early March, was back. UNLV won four games in four days by a combined 22 points, including knocking off Utah 54-51 in the quarterfinals. Utah went on to play Kentucky for the national championship, showing just how improbable the Rebels’ run was. They were led by Brian Keefe (currently an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder), Tyrone Nesby, Kevin Simmons and Mark Dickel who, on this weekend, gave Rebel faithful a pleasant blast from the past.

    • Then-record crowd cheers Rebels, ‘Fearless Freddie’ past Memphis State

      Freddie Banks, arguably the best shooter in UNLV history, had the final seven UNLV points against Memphis State on Feb. 8, 1986, in a 67-66 win. A then-record crowd of 18,832 watched the Saturday afternoon game, where UNLV knocked off No. 3 Memphis State on CBS. Banks scored 26 to lead the way and UNLV stole the ball from Andre Turner in the final seconds before he could attempt a potential game-winning shot.

    • Tark’s first game back

      Jerry Tarkanian could still pack the Mack. He returned to the arena Feb. 17, 1997, as the Fresno State coach, giving locals a reason to relive the days of Rebel greatness. UNLV prevailed 78-64 in front of 18,024 fans — most there, of course, to see Tark. Warren Rosegreen led Bill Bayno’s Rebels with 21 rebounds. “I’ve got a lot of respect for UNLV,” Tarkanian told the Sun after the game. “They played so hard. They never gave up. Billy’s doing a tremendous job there.”

    • Fight night against Utah State

      UNLV-Utah State postgame fight

      UNLV’s 124-90 victory against Utah State during early February of the 1990 national championship season started out as another run-of-the-mill league game. Overmatched Utah State had no chance. The memories happened after the final whistle, when most of the 18,000 had already headed home. Utah’s State Kendall Youngblood went over to UNLV big man Chris Jeter following the game, upset that Jeter’s elbow cut open a gash under his eye with seven seconds remaining, according to the Sun’s story the next morning. Soon it was chaos. A YouTube video shows Rebel enforcer Moses Scurry landing a few haymakers, including connecting with Utah State coach Kohn Smith, and UNLV’s Stacey Augmon on the receiving end of a punch. The melee lasted about two minutes. Jeter was suspended three games; Scurry one. It may have been worth the punishment. The brawl made an already tightknit UNLV team that much stronger. Two months later, they won the national title.

    • National title momentum

      UNLV played a rare non-league game in February 1990, opening with 14 unanswered points against No. 16 Louisville for a 91-81 victory in front of more than 19,000 fans. One year after being humbled at Louisville, a solid victory over the perennial powers gave the Rebels the confidence they needed for their 1990 national championship run. The Saturday afternoon game was televised by CBS, showing a national audience they would be a force in the NCAA Tournament. In the middle of Big West Conference play against inferior competition, the Rebels dominated a powerhouse team like it did league foes. “They don’t always go hard against Johnny Junior High,” Tarkanian told CBS announcers. “But fellas, on any given night those guys can be the best team in the country.”

    • UNLV's Omari Pearson and the UNLV bench celebrate during their double overtime game against New Mexico at the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas Thursday, March 7, 2002. UNLV defeated New Mexico 120-117.

      UNLV's Omari Pearson and the UNLV bench celebrate during their double overtime game against New Mexico at the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas Thursday, March 7, 2002. UNLV defeated New Mexico 120-117.

      Wild victory against New Mexico

      This game featured 237 total points, two overtimes, buzzer beaters and plenty of excitement. If it were played during the Rebels’ “glory years” it would be one of those games everyone would still remember. The Rebels prevailed, 120-117, in a slugfest against New Mexico in the 2003 Mountain West quarterfinals, using a career-best 35 points from Lou Kelley, and gutsy performances from Marcus Banks and Dalron Johnson in out-dueling New Mexico’s Ruben Douglas. After UNLV’s Banks made just 1 of 2 free throws with seven seconds to play in the first overtime, New Mexico’s Senque Carey made a layup as time expired to even the game at 105-all and force the second overtime. In the first half, the lead changed 11 times and there were five ties — a theme that continued until UNLV pulled away in the second overtime. Kelly had six points in overtime, helping UNLV advance. They arguably should have won in regulation. Douglas buried a 3-pointer for New Mexico with 14 seconds left for a one-point lead. Banks, who was later an NBA Lottery pick, was fouled on UNLV’s ensuing possession attempting the game-winner. However, he made just 1 of 2 fouls shots to force overtime. They were upset by San Diego State in the tournament finals.

    • NIT win against Oklahoma part of Final Four season

      The 1986-87 season ended UNLV’s second appearance in the Final Four. It started with a pair of impressive home victories in the preseason NIT, including 90-81 against Stacey King-led Oklahoma to punch the Rebels’ ticket to the tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden. UNLV, then ranked No. 5 nationally, got 11 straight points from Armon "The Hammer” Gilliam in the second half in pulling away from No. 7 Oklahoma in what was believed to be the Mack’s first matchup of top-10 teams. It was the first "official" season for the 3-point line, giving Rebel sharpshooters Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio an advantage. But, according to an article by NewsOK, the home-court advantage was the most significant difference. ”Incidentally, with this taut 90-81 victory, Jerry kid’s are now 47-2 in this $30 million den of din. And well they ought to be. The pep band plays the “da-da, da-da, da-da” theme of “Jaws” at first sight of the opposition, while a red carpet is rolled out for the home team to enter on. Then a laser light show, complete with exploding fireworks, works the crowd into a frenzy and the visitors into a tither,” columnist Jim Lassiter wrote.

    Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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