Texas Christian junior Zvonko Buljan is new to the Mountain West Conference, so he took advantage of an opportunity to introduce himself Saturday.
He’s a 6-foot-9-inch forward from Croatia who spent the past two years at Vincennes (Ind.) University, and his biggest achievement to date is putting a stop to UNLV’s eight-game winning streak.
Buljan had 20 points and 13 rebounds to push TCU to an 80-73 upset of UNLV before 3,924 fans at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.
“I’m glad people will know who I am,” Buljan said. “We’re a new team. It’s not the same TCU team as last year.” Buljan went on to say he expects the Horned Frogs to compete for the MWC title.
The Rebels were in no position to argue, and based on how they declined to defend Buljan, they must not have known anything about him.
After preaching defense in practice all week, Rebels coach Lon Kruger watched his team play dead on that end. The Horned Frogs shot 56.6 percent from the field, including 14-for-22 (63.6 percent) in the second half.
“That’s going to get you beat most of the time,” Kruger said. “Their ability to shoot it for a high percentage is a big concern. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to play with much greater toughness.”
UNLV (13-3, 1-1 MWC) unraveled after going ahead 57-48 on Rene Rougeau’s layup with 14:07 remaining.
Buljan scored seven points during TCU’s 15-0 run that lasted just over four minutes.
“When we get a lead like that, we’ve got to turn it up even more. This game is all about runs, and we let them have too many of them,” said senior forward Joe Darger, who led the Rebels with 15 points. “I think it really came down to the defensive end.
“Our defensive intensity wasn’t up where we needed it, and we gave up way too many easy baskets. It’s definitely disappointing any time you lose, but this whole week of practice that’s all we drilled was defense.”
Darger’s 3-pointer pulled UNLV within 72-70 with 1:25 left, and Wink Adams made a free throw to cut the Horned Frogs’ lead to one.
After Buljan hit a free throw to make it 73-71, Adams was short on a turnaround jumper in the lane. Rougeau and Buljan got tangled on the rebound, and Rougeau was called for a personal foul and a technical, fouling him out with 30 seconds to go.
Kruger said he did not see what caused Rougeau to get the technical. Rougeau said he was surprised by the call but took the blame.
“I’ve got to play smarter than that,” Rougeau said. “I just grabbed him and that’s about it. I was more disappointed that I did that.”
TCU made 2 of 5 free throws on its possession and emerged with a 75-71 lead, which the Rebels’ Tre’Von Willis cut into by making two free throws with 22 seconds to go.
Edvinas Ruzgas, who finished with 18 points, made two free throws for the Horned Frogs (11-5, 2-0), and Adams missed a 3-point attempt with 15 seconds left.
TCU, 14-16 last season including 0-3 against UNLV, looks to be a different team under first-year coach Jim Christian.
“If you’re going to try to compete for the title, you have to win at home,” Christian said. “We won a home game, and we beat a fantastic basketball team.”
Adams finished with nine points and passed Larry Johnson (1989-91) to climb to 13th on UNLV’s career scoring list with 1,624 points.
But the senior guard shot 3-for-11 and dropped to 6-1 career when playing in his home state of Texas.
“It’s something we’ve got to bounce back from and get better,” said Adams, who had a career-high nine assists in his first start since suffering a lower abdominal injury Dec. 23 against Southern Utah.
Kruger started Darger with a four-guard lineup of Adams, Rougeau, Willis and freshman Oscar Bellfield, who left in the second half with a right hamstring injury.
The Rebels relied heavily on perimeter shooting – they went 15-for-34 from 3-point range, with Darger hitting 5 of 14 – but lost the rebounding battle, 32-23.
Junior forward Darris Santee played only six minutes off the bench after starting the first 15 games, and freshman center Brice Massamba did not get in the game.
“It’s not going to be easy on the road,” Rougeau said. “We’ve got to play solid defense. We’re usually a lot tougher.”
Rougeau and sophomore guard Kendall Wallace, who hit all four of his 3-point shots, scored 12 points apiece.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.