Resilient Rebels win one for the ages

Imagine how good a game it could have been had Texas Christian made 18 3-pointers. Then we really would have had something to remember.

Are you kidding me?

This is what makes conference basketball tournaments so exhilarating and exasperating at once. This is why four months of results idiotically are disregarded on the chance a team that hasn’t won a game of note in four years plays out of its mind for 40 minutes and nearly crushes the NCAA Tournament dreams of another under one remarkable shot after the next.

There are those who have watched UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center for decades and insist few, if any, games in the last 15 years have been better than a Mountain West Conference Tournament quarterfinal Thursday night.

UNLV won because a loss would have meant preparing for the consolation prize that is a National Invitation Tournament berth come Sunday, because in surviving TCU 89-88 and unquestionably one of the better efforts from a losing team in this event’s nine-year history, the Rebels showed a resiliency often difficult to produce with so much riding on an outcome.

TCU made 17 of 23 3s for 73.9 percent and 17 of 19 free throws. UNLV shot 11 of 25 on 3s and nearly 59 percent from the field. The game featured 15 lead changes, 10 ties, more shot-clock-beating jumpers than some teams convert in a season and a three-point play by UNLV guard Wink Adams with 3.4 seconds remaining and his team down two.

Important plays? Too many to recall.

Huge shots? Too many to count.

"It was a good game," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said.

This guy is classic.

Kruger to Neil Armstrong while leaning out of Apollo 11 in 1969: "Nice leap."

Kruger to Jesse Owens in 1936 at the finish line in Berlin: "Good run."

Kruger to Douglas MacArthur in 1914 at the Veracruz seaside: "Fine strategy."

Funny. The vanilla quality that defines Kruger in media settings is a major reason he is such a quality coach. Players often react to how their leader behaves, and in a conference that has more than a few animated sorts stomping around the sidelines, Kruger’s consistently steady conduct never allows the Rebels too high or low an emotional stage on which to perform.

It helped them avoid disaster Thursday.

Credit the Horned Frogs as much as possible. They were terrific. They couldn’t have played better, not a bunch that finished 6-10 in conference and had lost three straight coming in while averaging 48.3 points per game. They hit contested shots, shots from crazy angles, shots falling down.

Time and again, UNLV’s pressure defense took TCU out of its original set. Time and again, the Horned Frogs ran motion and created a shot.

But pressure to win was nowhere near TCU’s bench. Say what you want about strong Ratings Percentage Indexes and schedule ratings, but a UNLV loss on its home court to a seventh-place team would have given the NCAA selection committee all the reason it needed to ignore the Rebels.

Which would have been deserved. You can’t lose this game at this point and claim to be one of the 34 best remaining teams. Not coming from this conference.

"We made play after play down the stretch," Kruger said. "I thought our guys, the pressure was, you know, would fall on our shoulders. I thought our guys handled that very well."

All it produced was one of the best wins for UNLV here in years. Maybe the 120-117 double-overtime win against New Mexico in 2002 was better. Maybe the 97-92 victory against Wyoming in 2000. But for quality of play on both sides, you won’t find much more than this.

It seems like enough now, a 24-7 record and place in the league tournament semifinals, to return UNLV to the NCAA Tournament. It seems now that New Mexico has exited stage right and with it the Lobos’ at-large hopes, the Rebels safely are in line for another bid.

It seems like Thursday’s escape will pay off if the Rebels can’t repeat as conference tournament champion. Nothing is certain, but it probably would have been had Adams not made that short jumper and converted a three-point play. It wouldn’t have been good.

"Tonight was amazing," Rebels senior guard Curtis Terry said. "We would come down and hit a shot, and they would come down and hit a shot. We’d come back and make a play, and they would come back and make a play."

Amazing is right.

Or, in the unforgettable portrayal from Lon Kruger … good.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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