UNLV thrives against frightened foe

OMAHA, Neb. — Thirty-four basketball games later, last year really does mean everything.

The NCAA Tournament is often as much about experience as upsets, which is why UNLV today has a date with a monster opponent and Kent State has one with Dr. Phil.

There are dream beginnings, and then there is the unconditional bliss the Rebels felt in the first round of the Midwest Regional here, when over the first 20 minutes UNLV was a group that understood how to deal with the pressure of such a moment and Kent State was suffocated by it. The Golden Flashes had 10 points at halftime. No, that is not a misprint.

"I don’t think it could have been any better for us," Rebels guard Curtis Terry said. "Maybe if they scored nine points in the half."

Now that’s just silly.

UNLV coach Lon Kruger spoke about it all year and again Thursday after a 71-58 win at the Qwest Center, about how watching their teammates make the Sweet 16 last season drew a map for these current Rebels on how to compete in March.

Take players such as Rene Rougeau and Matt Shaw. They combined for a total of 14 minutes in UNLV’s three NCAA tourney games last year but saw how a team advances in this event. They tasted the success, smelled the atmosphere, sensed the magnitude, learned how not to go home early.

On Thursday, they combined for 56 minutes, 21 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks.

"I know last year we all had that same (nervous) feeling as (Kent State)," Terry said. "First time in the tournament. First time with all the media. First time in a new arena. Everything that leads up to it. Having that experience definitely helped us."

Kent State is far better than it appeared in the first half, when it made Colorado State look like the Celtics. But this is what happens in a basketball avalanche. Turnovers and missed shots build and build to the point that the fear of making another mistake becomes crippling. You play scared.

The Golden Flashes at one point were shooting 3-for-20 with 17 turnovers. The Pyrenees don’t have that much snow.

Some of it had to do with UNLV’s defense, some with the magnitude of an NCAA setting. But as average as the Rebels were offensively those first 20 minutes, they executed enough to capitalize on Kent State having five Barney Fifes on the floor.

UNLV didn’t play particularly well for stretches, but it didn’t have to in leading by 21. It might be the last time the Rebels shoot 39 percent, make 3 of 12 3s, have nine turnovers and are ahead three touchdowns at halftime.

"When (Kent State) didn’t have it going, it was important to widen our lead as much as possible," Kruger said. "That was obviously the difference in the game.

"Back in October and November, there were a ton of questions about (UNLV), about who was going to step forward, especially given the loss of five seniors from last year.

"Yet they lined up and expected good things to happen. They worked awfully hard. They expected good things, and no one ever kept them from it."

UNLV will need more of everything Saturday, when it plays No. 1 seed Kansas. The comparisons between this game and last year’s NCAA matchup against Wisconsin end with both coming in the second round. The Badgers were a good team with one terrific player. The Jayhawks are a great one with a boatload of them.

The skill part isn’t close; Kansas has far more of it. But confidence can keep inferior teams in games and experience can help balance out inequities for at least a half, if not longer.

The Rebels’ season will be expected to end here, but such a fate won’t be because UNLV pulls a Kent State and plays like it just saw the zombie girl attacking her mother with a gardening shovel. No one will have to remind the Rebels to show up.

"We would be here all night naming all the players Kansas has that can do things," Terry said. "But we’re comfortable with what we have. This is what we came here with and we’ve been successful all year.

"They’re obviously one of the top teams. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason. We just have to line up and play these guys. We have nothing to lose."

It’s an attitude born last year at this time, one that on Thursday was demonstrated in an NCAA win.

Ed Graney can be reached at (702) 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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