Coach Jerry Tarkanian says his Nevada Las Vegas team “is probably the skinniest team in America,” but the 18th-ranked Runnin’ Rebels certainly aren’t thin on talent.
Tarkanian proved that Thursday night, making liberal use of his bench en route to a 102-82 rout of UC Irvine in the second round of the Big West Conference Tournament in front of 7,242 at Long Beach Arena.
For most of the teams competing here this week, the ultimate goal is the tournament championship and the automatic berth to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. playoffs that goes with it.
For the Rebels (24-7), already a shoo-in for an NCAA spot, it’s little more than a warmup for “The Show.” Las Vegas plays Cal State Fullerton in a semifinal game tonight at 7.
Irvine (12-17) played about as well as it can in the first half, sinking four of seven first-half three-point attempts, but the Anteaters couldn’t shoot their way out of this one.
Las Vegas started out a little cool, but they were cooking by halftime. The Rebels pumped in 29 points in the final six minutes of the first half to take a 55-45 lead at the intermission.
Irvine cut the margin to four twice, but the Rebels quickly regained a 10-point lead and a pair of back-to-back, steal-and-stuff plays by Stacy Augmon and Greg Anthony put the Rebels on cruise control with a 77-63 lead with less than 9 minutes to play.
It was showtime after that as the Rebels took turns practicing their breakaway dunks. Las Vegas led, 85-62, with 7:10 remaining.
Augmon scored 27 points and Anthony had 24 to lead UNLV. Rod Palmer scored 23 and Mike Doktorczyk had 13 for Irvine.
The Rebels may be slight, but they aren’t retiring. They play the most physical defense in the conference and have been known to take a team or two out of its offense.
That physical style can be their downfall, though. The Anteaters made 36 of 43 free throws and came away with their biggest victory of the season, a 99-98 upset of Las Vegas Feb. 4 at Irvine, when four Rebel starters fouled out.
“Vegas is deep,” Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan said, “but the way to beat them is to foul out that first five and take your chances with the second five.”
The way the Anteaters were shooting in the early going Thursday night, they would have had a shot at beating the Rebel starters. Irvine, which had lost its shooting touch while losing its final four regular-season games, finally found the range.
Palmer made four three-pointers in the first 8 1/2 minutes of the game as the Anteaters jumped out to a 22-17 lead. Irvine, which shot better than 60% from the field in the first 10 minutes of play, led by as many as seven, 33-26, when Mike Labat scored on a driving layup with 6:17 left in the half.
But the Rebels turned up the defensive intensity and decided to do a little long-range damage of their own. Las Vegas got its first lead since the very early going when Augmon made a pair of free throws to put the Rebels ahead, 41-40, with 2:35 left.
Then Augmon, Anthony and Anderson Hunt pumped in consecutive three-pointers in a 50-second span that vaulted the Rebels to a 50-41 advantage.
For Irvine, a forgettable season ended Thursday night. For Las Vegas, a postseason they hope will be most memorable was just beginning.