There wasn't much runnin' in the Rebels Thursday night, but when you have power players such as Elmore Spencer and Evric Gray and outside shooters such as J.R. Rider, who needs the fast break?
In a stark contrast to Nevada Las Vegas' transition-fueled teams of past, the Rebels used more size and muscle than speed to defeat Cal State Fullerton, 86-74, in the Big West Conference opener in Titan Gym.
A momentary lapse by Fullerton and a sudden surge by UNLV at the beginning of the second half keyed the Rebels' victory. The Rebels scored 10 consecutive points to turn a 45-41 deficit into a 51-45 lead with 16 minutes remaining.
UNLV extended the lead to nine with 10:43 left, and Fullerton never got closer than five points the rest of the way. The Rebels secured the victory by making nine of 10 free throws in the final 2:15.
A crowd of 3,702 saw the Titans (4-6) outplay the Rebels (9-2) in the first half, after which they held a 41-39 lead. Joe Small was hitting from the outside and scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half. Agee Ward was effective from the inside, scoring 10 of his 21 points. And point guard Aaron Sunderland scored nine points on a variety of drives and jumpers.
But that was before Spencer, UNLV's 7-foot, 270-pound senior center, decided to assert himself offensively. Spencer spent most of the first half catching entry passes underneath the basket and then dishing back to teammates on the perimeter.
It seemed kind of odd, a projected lottery pick in the next NBA draft giving up inside shots for passes, but Spencer showed why he's considered an NBA prospect in the second half. He manhandled the Titans by scoring 14 of his 20 points.
Spencer also had 11 rebounds and three blocked shots, and he forced Fullerton to alter several other shots. Two Titan centers, Sean Williams and Kim Kemp, fouled out trying to guard him.
And when Spencer wasn't scoring from inside, he was usually at the foul line, where he made six of nine attempts.
"He's like a big wall you're trying to get around," Williams said of Spencer. "In the first half, he was passing to everyone else, but in the second they started going to him and he scored. He was getting easy points, so we started fouling him. But I don't feel too bad, because he fouled (LSU's) Shaquille O'Neal out, too."
Spencer scored four of the 10 points during UNLV's decisive second-half run and came up with several big rebounds on the defensive end. Rider, the junior transfer from Antelope Valley College, scored 22 points, including three three-pointers. Gray had 10 points and 11 rebounds and Reggie Manuel added 10 points.
Fullerton entered the game outrebounding opponents by an average of six per game, but the Rebels outrebounded the Titans, 39-32, and had a 22-14 edge in the second half. And, when Fullerton went cold at the start of the second half, UNLV didn't allow the Titans any second shots.
"In the second half, they really got to us on the boards, and their inside play really affected us," Fullerton Coach John Sneed said. "When we missed early in the second half, we got no putbacks or offensive rebounds. You need more than one shot against Las Vegas if you're going to beat them."
Another key for UNLV was its box-and-one and diamond-and-one defenses, which helped take Small out of the offense in the second half. The Titan guard made five of seven shots in the first half but only one of six in the second.
"We started in a man-to-man and Small never missed a shot," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "He looked like he was going to have one of those nights, so we went to the box-and-one. That kid's a great shooter. If he had shot well against UCLA, they would have blown them out. He's the best shooter in the conference."
Ward had another solid game, grabbing 11 rebounds to go with his 21 points, but he made only 10 of 23 field-goal attempts after shooting 64.8% in the previous nine games.
Sunderland played a strong game, scoring 16 points, passing out nine assists and turning the ball over only twice, and Bruce Bowen added 14 points and eight rebounds.
The Titans have lost three of their last four games, but those losses were to UCLA, Houston and UNLV. They have a week off before traveling to Fresno State (Jan. 9) and Utah State (Jan. 11) for conference games.
"I knew before the season started that this part of our schedule would be tough on us, considering the quality of the opponents," Sneed said. "I told them not to let this wreck us emotionally, because we can still be competitive in league. We played outstanding basketball in the first 20 minutes tonight, and we have nothing to be ashamed of.