If it had seemed clear that Nevada Las Vegas was the type of team that might beat Arizona, it was also clear that the Rebels were the type of team liable to botch the chance.
Which is precisely what seemed to be happening as the Rebels frittered away the final 30 seconds of their West Regional semifinal against top-seeded Arizona Thursday night. The Rebels trailed by two points as the last handful of seconds ticked by.
The clock showed only 10 seconds remaining, and UNLV’s Anderson Hunt still had the ball outside the three-point line, where he was being guarded by Ken Lofton. But they bumped, and Lofton went to the floor. Hunt looked down, then back toward the basket. He pivoted, squared and shot. It found the net for three points and a 68-67 UNLV victory before a crowd of 16,813 at McNichols Arena.
“The second that went off his hand, it looked to me like it was dead-center,” Arizona Coach Lute Olson said.
And it was.
That shot broke a UNLV scoring drought of more than five minutes, during which the Rebels squandered a 65-58 lead. Sean Elliott had hit one of his trademark fastbreak three-pointers to cut the lead to two, and Arizona took the lead shortly thereafter on Matt Muehlebach’s follow shot with 1:35 left.
Arizona had the ball with less than a minute left when Muehlebach was called for traveling, turning the ball over to UNLV.
After a timeout, the Rebels brought the ball in with the idea of getting it to George Ackles or David Butler--or going for the three-pointer and the victory.
“We wanted to take time off the clock,” UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. “But I’d rather take a three than a two at that point because we’re the underdogs. If we’re the favorite, we play to tie and go to overtime.”
Overtime was not in the cards.
“That was an excellent basketball game, and I think if we had won, you would say we had played hard and well,” Olson said. “UNLV certainly played hard and well.
“I thought that down the stretch we did a great job, down to that final--that final shot. Even on the final possession, we had great defensive position. But when Kenny went down, it gave him (Hunt) the room he needed to put it down.”
Hunt, who made five three-pointers and scored 21 points, hit the final shot with four seconds left.
“I saw him falling, and I shot the three,” Hunt said. “I looked down once I saw him falling, and I just shot it. . . . Did I think the last shot was going in? Yeah, since we won I can say that. But it could have gone either way. I’ve been in a slump. It could have gone either way. . . . Soon as he fell, I looked down. Then I just staggered back, and shot the ball.”
After a series of timeouts with two seconds left, Arizona threw a desperation baseball pass. But George Ackles intercepted it and passed it down to Hunt, who danced through the lane, his index finger in the air.
This game was all the more intense because of Arizona’s 86-75 victory over UNLV in December, when Elliott had 32 points and 15 rebounds.
This time, it was different.
“This game, our plan was to try to deny Elliott the ball, and if he got it, to play with a cushion. Keep in front of him and don’t go for the fake,” Tarkanian said.
In the first half, as Stacey Augmon exhibited the skills that have made his defensive reputation, that was what happened.
“I thought Stacey played absolutely perfect defense in the first half,” Tarkanian said.
Elliott had only six points by halftime.
“I just have to credit their defense,” Elliott said. “They did an outstanding job helping out and not letting me do the things I wanted to do.”
In the second half, the Rebels were less successful.
“Stacey started climbing on him a little bit in the second half,” Tarkanian said. “When you start climbing him, he’s just going to go right by you.”
Elliott finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Anthony Cook scored 12 points, and Jud Buechler added 10.
Butler scored 16 points for UNLV, and Augmon had 15, nine more than he scored against Arizona in the first game this season.
The loss ended Arizona’s attempt to return to the Final Four for a second straight year, and the Wildcats finished with a 29-4 record.
“It’s a season-ending loss,” Olson said. “Yes, it’s bitter.”
UNLV, trying to return to the Final Four for the second time in three years, will face SetonHall Saturday in the Regional final.