Willis leads Rebel victory

Tre’Von Willis scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to help lead UNLV to a 76-66 win over San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday night.

Willis was particularly effective during a 14-2 run that turned a 3-point Aztec lead into a 59-50 UNLV advantage.

The junior scored 11 points during the surge.

“That’s what we need from him,” sophomore point guard Oscar Bellfield said. “That’s just him stepping up and being a leader.”

Willis agreed that he was just filling his role.

“I just tried to make plays and hang in there for my team,” he said. “I guess (at that point) I was looking to provide some kind of spark.”

Willis got plenty of help from Chace Stanback, who had 18 points, five rebounds and four steals as he continues to become more comfortable in the offense.

“Chace at New Mexico on Saturday was aggressive and confident at the offensive end,” UNLV head coach Lon Kruger said. “He continued that tonight and we need him to do that.”

Stanback made plays on back-to-back possessions to help the Rebels seal the victory.

He made a jumper off a set play coming out of a timeout to push the UNLV lead back to 67-62 with 2:50 remaining, then ripped down a rebound in traffic after the Aztecs missed the front end of a 1-and-1 on the other end of the floor. San Diego State never got closer.

The performance by UNLV was one fans have become accustomed to over the last few seasons. A sluggish first-half effort was followed by a very good second half.

“San Diego State did a terrific job and won the first half and I thought we bounced back and won the second half,“ Kruger said. “San Diego State’s tough and we feel good about the win.”

Bellfield had 12 points and six assists for UNLV.

San Diego State was led by 13 points from freshman Kawhi Leonard. Malcolm Thomas and Tyrone Shelley each had 12 points

The Aztecs struggled shooting the ball. They scored 44 points in the paint, but made just 2 of 16 3-point attempts and went16-for-28 from the free-throw line.

Box out

UNLV was once again out-rebounded in the game, pulling down just 35 compared to San Diego State’s 44.

The Rebels were particularly generous on the offensive glass, allowing the Aztecs to convert 15 offensive rebounds into 16 points.

“San Diego State’s a very good rebounding ball club. We have to be more physical in our box outs and be more physical rebounding the ball,“ Kruger said. “We’ve faced a deficit in that area in just about every ballgame. We’re aware of that and we have to do a better job of that.”

He said the team has been working on the issue at practice, but it hasn’t yet translated into the games.

“Sixteen points off offensive boards. That’s a big chunk,“ Kruger said. “You cant afford to keep giving that up. That will come back to nip us. We know what our problem is, we just haven’t taken care of it.”

Willis said the lack of rebounding was frustrating.

“It felt kind of weird because we knew we were D’ing up and getting stops,” he said. “We just couldn’t finish it off by getting the rebounds.”

Bad matchup

UNLV has had all kinds of problems beating San Diego State over the last few years.

More than any other team, the Aztecs have given the Rebels trouble. That goes especially for games played at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Rebels are now 34-3 in their last 37 games played in this arena against Mountain West Conference competition.

All three losses have come to San Diego State.

“We lost all three times to them last year, two of them in this building,” Willis said. “We take pride in not losing in this building, so I feel good about this win for our team.”

Even Kruger admitted those three losses were on his mind going into the game.

“Certainly, you don’t like losing three times to anyone,” he said after the victory.

Sealing the win

UNLV made sure San Diego State could not come back in the final minutes by converting from the free-throw line.

In fact, the Rebels made their free throws all night.

UNLV hit 21 of 25 from the line, an impressive 84 percent. Willis, as usual, was the top performer.

He went 10-for-13 in the game, including sinking 8 of 9 in the second half.

The Rebels made 7 of 8, including the final six, in the final 1:22.

Up next

UNLV will host Utah at 7 p.m. on Saturday night.

The Utes are coming off a 17-point loss at New Mexico on Wednesday night and will once again be without leading rebounded Kim Tillie.

The Rebels should beat Utah, but they aren’t good enough to look past any league foes. The win on the road at New Mexico was huge as it gives the Rebels a leg up in the chase for the regular-season title, but now UNLV can’t afford any missteps at home.

To win the league, it’s almost imperative that the Rebels go unbeaten at home. “

Utah’s tough. Prior to tonight, they’d won three in a row,” Kruger said. They’ve got big guys inside. I really haven’t seen them ;play too much, but I know they’ve played a tough schedule and it’s going to be a tough game on Saturday.”

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