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Willis wins Aztecs’ respect

Midway through his junior year, guard Tre’Von Willis has matured into UNLV’s team leader and most reliable scorer. All he talks about, though, is doing what’s necessary to be a winner.

But Willis never has experienced that feeling against San Diego State.

The Aztecs dominated the Rebels last year, making a joke of one of the lamest cliches in sports: It’s tough to beat a team three times in a season. Each game was more lopsided than the previous one.

“It wasn’t very pretty,” Willis said. “Losing is embarrassing, period. I take every loss personal.”

Willis said last year’s whippings will serve as “added motivation” when UNLV (13-3, 1-1 Mountain West Conference) hosts San Diego State (12-4, 1-1) at 7 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.

In the Rebels’ games at Brigham Young and New Mexico last week, Willis averaged 22 points, and earned the admiration of Aztecs coach Steve Fisher.

“Willis is money in the bank when he has the ball,” Fisher said. “He’s going to either get it to the rim or get to the free-throw line, and it’s almost a lock two points when he gets to the line.”

Willis, a 91 percent foul shooter this season, is averaging 15.5 points and doing everything more consistently than he did as a sophomore.

“Tre has been very productive. His role is to score for us, and he does a lot of other things, too, but we need his scoring,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “People say, ‘Everyone wants to be a scorer.’ But it’s not easy to step up there every night and have to deliver, especially when the opponents now are stacking their cards to try to stop you.

“It’s a credit to Tre that he’s prepared to go out, battle and get results, and he’s done that consistently.”

Sophomore point guard Oscar Bellfield has been another rock for the Rebels. But after those two, it’s a guessing game who will emerge from the group of Derrick Jasper, Chace Stanback, Matt Shaw and Kendall Wallace.

Jasper and Stanback combined for seven points in UNLV’s loss at BYU. Three days later, Stanback had 14 points and nine rebounds, and Jasper totaled six points, seven rebounds and six assists to help the Rebels upset then-No. 15 New Mexico, 74-62.

“Chace and Derrick were more aggressive and they played with more confidence, which we really need,” Kruger said.

The Aztecs have their own issues. Leading scorer Billy White, a junior forward from Green Valley High School, is questionable to play today after spraining his right ankle Jan. 5.

“He will make the trip,” Fisher said. “We are going to pack his bag, including his shoes. He’ll be with us, and the bag will probably still be packed when we come back home. I see no way he can play.”

San Diego State blew a 14-point lead late in an 85-83 loss Saturday at Wyoming.

“I was mad, angry and disappointed,” Fisher said. “Now we’re staring at a trip to UNLV, which is not where you would like to go coming off a loss. We will have our hands full for certain.”

If White is unable to play, the Aztecs will need to get most of their scoring from freshman forward Kawhi Leonard, junior forward Malcolm Thomas and junior guard D.J. Gay.

Willis aside, Fisher is most concerned about the Rebels’ depth and disruptive defense.

“Their signature item is they guard you for 94 feet for 40 minutes, and they’re very good at it,” Fisher said. “UNLV is an extremely well-rounded team that plays well together.

“They have got tremendous depth, and they’ve got a lot of guys we didn’t see last year. They’re a better team than last year. UNLV is as good as it gets in this league.”

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

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