CEDAR CITY, Utah — Slow starts to games seem to be a theme for UNLV, and sophomore Chace Stanback has been looking to pick up the pace himself.
Stanback struggled with his shot for most of the first month. He was searching for a positive sign, and he found it Tuesday night.
A strong start by Stanback and a second-half surge led by Tre’Von Willis carried the Rebels to a 77-59 victory over Southern Utah at Centrum Arena, where a majority of the 4,331 fans were backing the visitors.
"I’m starting to feel a little rhythm right now," said Stanback, who made 3 of 4 3-point shots and scored a career-high 15 points. "I think I was just in a slump, and I had to shoot myself out of it."
Willis, in a rare appearance as a reserve, poured in 11 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to ensure UNLV (8-1) closed the deal.
Stanback scored 10 points in the first half, which the Rebels trailed a majority of the time, and his 3-pointer put UNLV up 31-30 at halftime.
"We weren’t ready in the first half. We just picked up the intensity," he said.
The Rebels turned up their defensive heat and went on a 23-6 run in the first eight minutes of the second half. Willis sank a 3-pointer, then made a steal and passed to Derrick Jasper for a dunk to put UNLV on top 43-32.
"After I threw that lob to (Jasper) and he flushed it, our bench was so pumped. We had all the momentum on our side," said Willis, who had four of the Rebels’ 14 steals.
UNLV forced the Thunderbirds into 25 turnovers and turned them into 28 points.
"We wanted to apply some pressure in the second half," Willis said. "We wanted to force turnovers and get easy buckets in transition."
The Rebels stretched their lead to 54-36 on Oscar Bellfield’s 3-pointer with 12 minutes to go. Bellfield finished with 10 points, eight in the second half.
Senior guard Davis Baker scored 21 points to lead Southern Utah (3-8), a team that fought aggressively despite an obvious lack of talent.
The Thunderbirds’ three victories are against McNeese State, University of the Southwest and Wayland Baptist, and their first seven losses were by an average of 18.1 points. So making UNLV sweat for a while was an accomplishment.
"We did a lot of good things and we were pretty confident going into the half," Baker said. "But their pressure kind of hurt us. They had their run and we couldn’t get back. We played a good 25 minutes or so."
Rebels coach Lon Kruger made changes in his starting lineup for the second consecutive game. He inserted Stanback and Matt Shaw at forward spots and Kendall Wallace at shooting guard.
Shaw and Wallace got their first starts of the season. Wallace replaced Willis, and Shaw was in for Brice Massamba, who started the first eight games at center.
"We’re looking at a lot of different combinations," Kruger said. "(Willis) didn’t pick up two early fouls, and that was encouraging. The last three ballgames, Tre picked up two early fouls, and we just can’t afford to let that happen."
Willis, the team’s leading scorer, had started 16 straight games and 26 of the past 27. Kruger said it’s "not necessarily" going to be a trend with Willis playing as a reserve.
"I wanted to come in off the bench and kind of set a tempo," Willis said. "We were a little stagnant at times in the first half. We’re still not putting 40 minutes together in a game."
Stanback, a 6-foot-8-inch forward, averaged 6.1 points while starting the first seven games. He had 14 points off the bench in UNLV’s loss to Kansas State on Saturday, and he backed that up by shooting holes in the Southern Utah defense.
"Chace shot the ball well," Kruger said. "He seems to have regained his confidence."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.UNLV — 77
SOUTHERN UTAH — 59
KEY: Tre’Von Willis had 16 points and Chace Stanback supplied a career-high 15 as the Rebels climbed to 8-1.
NEXT: Weber State at UNLV, 7 p.m. Thursday, KWWN-AM (1100)