Willis, Rebels use sound strategy

NORMAL, Ill. — Dressed in black, Tre’Von Willis was singled out as the villain by opposing fans who loudly taunted the UNLV senior guard for his offseason legal problems.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Willis said Wednesday night. “My job is to play basketball. I don’t know about anything else.”

In the national polls and playing a true road game for the first time this season, the 24th-ranked Rebels quieted the hecklers in a hurry by routing Illinois State 82-51 in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge.

UNLV, back in black uniforms, upped its record to 7-0 and turned out the lights on the Redbirds (5-2) with a first-half knockout.

“We knew if we could take the crowd out of the game, we could take their team out of the game,” said sophomore guard Anthony Marshall, who scored all of his 15 points in the second half.

Chace Stanback scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half as the Rebels rolled to a 39-22 lead.

Six players scored at least eight points for UNLV. Derrick Jasper had 12 points and nine rebounds, Oscar Bellfield made three 3-pointers and scored 11, and Willis and Justin Hawkins had eight points apiece.

The game was so one-sided, the Illinois State student section lost its enthusiasm for riding Willis, who was arrested June 29 for allegedly choking a female friend and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery charges Sept. 28.

Willis, who served a four-game suspension, did not hear or chose to ignore fans yelling taunts such as “Please don’t choke me” and “Go back to jail, Willis” during the first half.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. “I don’t know if he heard anything.”

It was hard not to hear the screams at Willis, because the crowd of 6,485 in Redbird Arena had few reasons to cheer.

“We heard a few of them,” Stanback said. “Tre likes to feed off everything. That’s the most important thing in road games is taking the crowd out of it.”

Willis did some of the silencing. His three-point play on a fast break put UNLV up 22-10 at the 9:29 mark. A 3-pointer by Willis extended the lead to 37-20.

The Redbirds, inexperienced and rebuilding, were rattled by the Rebels’ swarming defense and committed 12 turnovers while shooting 0-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half. Kruger called off the attack and rested his starters for most of the second half.

“We’re playing well,” said Willis, who shot 3-for-10. “We came in here and did what we expected to do.”

Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, who played at Kansas State while Kruger was an assistant there in the early 1980s, heaped praise on the Rebels before and after the game.

“Our guys were really ready to play,” Jankovich said. “But UNLV is a high-level team with high-level players and high-level coaching.

“No one in our league pressures like that. They don’t let you run anything, and they disrupt everything. It’s got to be the best pressure defense in the country. I can’t imagine anyone does it any better.”

Austin Hill scored 15 points to lead the Redbirds, who were pounded 44-30 in the rebounding battle.

“It was pretty methodical. The guys were pretty consistent from start to finish,” Kruger said. “Our guys have handled the past 10 days pretty well. It’s not surprising they would go on the road and keep pretty good focus.”

The Rebels beat Virginia Tech on Sunday to win the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. After Tuesday’s practice, the players found all-black uniforms — reportedly not worn by UNLV in more than a decade — in their lockers.

“Everyone has been asking for it for a long time,” Stanback said.

Going back to black apparently provided inspiration.

“You really don’t see too many teams with all black uniforms,” Marshall said. “Everybody loved it.”

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

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