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Rivalry: ‘Respect,’ not hatred

RENO — As a Nevada high school star, Armon Johnson was not recruited by UNLV. He’s not bitter about it, either.

Johnson, UNR’s sophomore point guard, only wants to prove that his team is better today.

Johnson played at Hug High in Reno, so he knows the atmosphere will be intense when the Rebels (6-2) meet the Wolf Pack (3-3) at 7:30 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center.

“I think it is a big rivalry for everybody,” Johnson said. “I just want to make sure I help my team get a victory.

“UNLV is a really good team, one of the better teams we’ll face.”

Johnson dodged most questions from the Reno media aimed at hyping the in-state matchup.

Rebels coach Lon Kruger said the basketball version of the rivalry is one “more of respect” than hatred. “The fans and media put a little more significance on it, and that adds to it for the players,” he said.

Only two players in today’s game, Johnson and UNR freshman Luke Babbitt, claim deep roots in the state, and both expect to make a major impact.

Johnson was picked as the preseason Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference by the league’s coaches. But he might not be the best player on his team.

Babbitt, a 6-foot-9-inch forward from Galena High in Reno, is the Wolf Pack’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game.

Unlike Johnson, Babbitt was coveted by Kruger.

Babbitt was the third player in Nevada prep history to be named a McDonald’s All-American, and he set the state career scoring record with 2,941 points, breaking Johnson’s mark.

“We recruited him early,” Kruger said. “I think he’s a terrific player. He does a lot of things well and makes it a tough matchup.”

Babbitt will see a variety of UNLV defenders in his face, with 6-8 junior forward Darris Santee probably being the most prominent.

After the Rebels’ 82-76 victory at Fresno State on Wednesday, Santee was asked about Babbitt and said, “I’ve never heard of him.”

Santee might find out that Babbitt has NBA potential.

“Luke is going to draw some attention. We certainly need Luke to score. But he’s been very unselfish,” UNR coach Mark Fox said.

“One of the things we’ve talked a lot about with Luke is, ‘You’re going to see different defenses and you have to learn how to play against all types.’ He hasn’t experienced very many defenses yet because he’s only played six games.”

Santee had his first double-figure scoring game with 21 points against Fresno State.

“Darris came up big for us,” UNLV sophomore point guard Tre’Von Willis. “I joked with him and said, ‘You’ve got to play big inside like that for us in every game.'”

The Rebels hope to hold the advantage outside as senior guard Wink Adams duels with Johnson, who scored 23 points in the Wolf Pack’s 82-76 victory at Colorado State on Tuesday.

In UNLV’s 79-67 victory over UNR last year, Johnson scored 15 points but had no assists and four turnovers. Adams scored 17 points to lead the Rebels.

“Wink doesn’t have to score 20 every night for them to win,” Fox said. “Wink is a terrific guard, but their role players are very complete. It’s not like you just have to prepare for two guys. I think their experience really shows in how they play together.”

NOTES — Kruger said freshman Oscar Bellfield will start in place of Willis, who was late to Friday morning’s practice in Las Vegas. “He missed part of practice. He just slept through the alarm, and you’ve got to be on time. We won’t make a big deal out of it,” Kruger said. … UNLV has a 50-19 series lead against UNR. In their last trip to Reno in 2006, the Rebels won, 58-49.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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