Nevada Las Vegas attempted Friday to alter the perception among fans and media that the Runnin’ Rebels are prohibitive favorites to beat Georgia Tech today in the semifinals of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Georgia Tech, of course, tried to perpetuate that perception.
Everyone, it seems, prefers the role of the underdog.
In the Yellow Jackets’ case, it seems to fit.
If Georgia Tech is “Lethal Weapon 3,” the nickname given its high-scoring triumvirate of forward Dennis Scott and guards Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver, perhaps UNLV should be called the Slaughterhouse Five.
“UNLV is scary,” Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said. “They have great talent. They’ve been here before, and they want this one badly. That’s not to say we don’t, but we’ve really got to put together a great game.
“We are capable of playing very exciting basketball at times. But throughout the tournament, we’ve been up and down, and, of course, we’ve been very fortunate in a couple of the games.”
If not for a disputed last-second shot by Anderson, which television replays seemed to indicate was released after the buzzer had sounded, Georgia Tech would have lost to Michigan State in the Southeast Regional semifinals instead of beating the top-seeded Spartans in overtime.
It’s no wonder that Anderson said Friday at a news conference: “We just play hard until the sound of the buzzer ends.”
The Yellow Jackets (28-6) tied for third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they won the ACC tournament at Charlotte, N.C., and they have yet to lose a game by more than five points. Four defeats were by two points, and they lost another game by one.
For scoring, they rely almost exclusively on Scott, Anderson and Oliver, who among them average almost 70 points a game.
Anderson, a freshman point guard from New York who is averaging 20.7 points, 8.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds, kidded Cremins this week, telling his coach: “I told you I was going to get you to the Final Four.”
Said Cremins: “I laughed and said, ‘You know as well as I do that we had no idea that we would be here.’ ”
But the coach added: “This team really came together. Something special happened. What’s great about it is, it’s so unexpected. I don’t have the answers. We just came together at the right time.
“Kenny blossomed. He’s been more of an impact player than I thought he was going to be. Dennis Scott--I had no idea he was going to play like this (and average 27 points a game). And everybody just got happy. Everybody liked each other. And we liked winning. I just sat back and enjoyed it.”
At Las Vegas, Coach Jerry Tarkanian had no such luxury.
UNLV’s season was fraught with academic problems, suspensions, fights, arrests and yet another NCAA investigation, still ongoing. Despite all that, the Rebels, No. 1 in most of the preseason polls, played well enough to wind up No. 2 at the regular season’s end.
Two of their tournament victories have been 30-point blowouts.
“I told the kids all year, ‘If we keep our heads together and we keep working hard, we have a chance to do something big,’ ” Tarkanian said.
All five UNLV starters boast double-figure scoring averages. The Rebels are 33-5, and reached the Final Four for the second time in four years by beating Loyola Marymount, 131-101, in the West Regional final.
UNLV uses a pressure man-to-man defense to disrupt its opponents, but, alluding to Anderson, who is not easily rattled, Tarkanian said: “We have a lot more fun playing against guards who don’t handle the ball well.”
UNLV is more talented in the front court than Georgia Tech. All-American forward Larry Johnson is averaging 20.7 points and 11.6 rebounds, and the other forward, Olympian Stacey Augmon, is averaging 14.1 points and seven rebounds and made his reputation as one of the nation’s most tenacious defenders. Center David Butler is averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Georgia Tech’s strength is its perimeter game, but UNLV guards Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony are averaging almost 30 points a game between them.
UNLV is probably better, but that’s no guarantee of a victory.
“I disagree with (being labeled) overwhelming favorites,” Tarkanian said. “If it was a seven-game series, the best team would probably win, but in a one-game situation, whoever has the best game, gets the right bounce of the ball or gets the key call from an official can win it.
“It’s going to come down to that.”
If it does, that would be all right with Georgia Tech.