It was mid-February when a seemingly fading UNLV team suddenly caught fire. But it was just a coincidence, coach Lon Kruger claims, that he turned up the heat in the locker room at about the same time.
Kruger banned his players from wearing their official shorts and jerseys to practice Feb. 17, saying it was a reminder to “represent better.”
He sent a message, and two days later, the Rebels responded with a turning-point victory at Colorado State.
Was it Kruger’s rare motivational ploy that lit the spark?
“I certainly don’t think it was the practice jerseys,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything magical.
“It all comes down to when you start winning ballgames, you look for reasons why. It’s a combination of things. But I think it had a lot more to do with making shots.”
The combination worked, and after a five-game winning streak, UNLV appears ready to fire its best shot in the postseason.
The third-seeded Rebels (23-7) face sixth-seeded Air Force (15-14) in the Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinals at 8:30 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The winner advances to play either San Diego State or Utah in Friday’s semifinals. The Aztecs, 29-2 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, own a pair of six-point victories over UNLV this season.
But senior guard Tre’Von Willis said the Rebels are not thinking ahead to a potential showdown with San Diego State.
“We’re worried about Air Force and Air Force only,” he said.
Ironically, it was a lackluster performance in a 49-42 victory over the Falcons that might have turned UNLV’s season in the right direction. Two days later was when Kruger stripped away the practice gear, and Willis promised the Rebels would be “new and improved.”
Win or lose the next three days, UNLV is all but guaranteed of a NCAA Tournament invitation.
“Our mentality is to win this thing,” Willis said. “You want to win your conference tournament. We want to keep this momentum going.”
The Rebels’ struggles with Air Force have a lot to do with the Falcons’ matchup zone defense and methodical offense. In the teams’ first meeting Jan. 15, UNLV trailed by five points with 7½ minutes remaining before a closing 19-2 run produced a 64-52 road victory.
Air Force often dictates the pace, and it has dead-eye shooters in Tom Fow, Michael Lyons and Derek Brooks. But defending the Falcons is not as problematic as scoring against them.
Offensively, Kruger said, UNLV must attack the zone more aggressively this time — and making shots always helps. In their past four games, the Rebels shot 31-for-65 (47.7 percent) from the 3-point line as Willis and juniors Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback hit a hot streak.
Willis hit 10 of 16 3-pointers in the last four games, and the strong finish earned him second-team All-MWC and District 17 second-team honors from the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Aside from motivational tricks and shot-making, UNLV’s turnaround might also be due to the emergence of sophomore forward Quintrell Thomas in the middle.
“The big thing right now is they are shooting the ball better,” Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. “Thomas has really played well for them down the stretch. Willis has been the guy, I think, that has been playing with more consistency as they have progressed toward the end of the season.
“When they make shots from the perimeter and they’ve got that inside force, they are as good as anybody in this league and maybe anybody in the country.”
Ideally, basketball should be an entertaining game. But when the Rebels and Falcons tangle, that’s rarely the case.
“It’s just grueling. It’s not fun to watch from a fans’ standpoint, either,” Willis said. “At the same time, getting a win is all that matters.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.MWC TOURNAMENT BRACKETS
AIR FORCE VS. UNLV
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. today
WHERE: Thomas & Mack Center
TV/RADIO: CBSC (333), The Mtn. (334), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
LINE: UNLV -13; total 124