LAS VEGAS — The bull's-eye that the No. 12 BYU Cougars carry on their backs these days got shot to pieces at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars entered the key Mountain West Conference road game against UNLV on top of the league standings and looking to expand that lead to two games. But the Rebels came out firing on all cylinders, and took the Cougars down early with a torrid long-range shooting display in an 88-74 win.
"They just kept making three after 3 after 3 ... and we couldn't come back from it," Cougar guard Jimmer Fredette said.
With the loss, the Cougars are now 22-3 overall and 7-2 in the MWC. With the victory, the Rebels improve to 19-4 and move into a tie with BYU atop the league standings at 7-2. New Mexico also sits at 7-2.
"There's no question who was the better team tonight," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "UNLV was terrific."
It was UNLV's blistering long-range shooting in the early going that put BYU into a hole too deep from which to claw out. When the Rebels drilled three straight treys four minutes into the game, they led 11-2. From there, it quickly got worse for BYU.
When Oscar Bellfield canned another 3-pointer at the 13:49 mark, UNLV had the Cougars in shock with a 20-4 lead. Minutes later, after another 3-ball trifecta from Bellfield, Tre'Von Willis and Matt Shaw, that lead was quickly stretched to 33-11.
The UNLV assault wasn't done yet. Two more 3-pointers by Shaw gave the Rebels a 26-point lead.
The Rebels had more. After a 3-pointer from BYU's Jonathan Tavernari cut the lead back to 23, a jumper by Willis, a steal and a layup by Justin Hawkins and two free throws by Willis put UNLV ahead 47-18 with 5:13 remaining in the half.
"They just came out firing," Tavernari said. "They didn't leave any bullets in the chamber tonight."
The Rebels built that insurmountable 29-point lead by shooting 65 percent in the first half and making 9-of-13 shots from behind the 3-point line. Willis was 6-of-9 at halftime with 21 points.
The Cougars, on the other hand, shot 33 percent in the first half and hit only 4-of-15 from behind the arc.
"They got off to a great start and we had a hard time matching that start ... we couldn't score early and they kind of took us out of things, and we missed quite a few open shots and it got away from us," Rose said.
Still, with another half to go, the Cougars didn't fold up shop. After cutting UNLV's lead to 22 at the break, the Cougars came out in the second half with a little more fire in their eyes and a lot more accuracy.
A putback by Noah Hartsock and a 3-pointer by Fredette made it a 17-point game. A few minutes later, Tyler Haws drilled a 3-pointer to cap BYU's 14-5 run to open the second half and trim UNLV's lead to 61-48.
From there, however, the Cougars were in a position of picking their poison. When they challenged the Rebels outside, they were burned by UNLV's penetration. The Rebels used that two-pronged weapon to put BYU back on its heels with seven straight points to push the margin back to 20.
"They really stretched us with the way they shot early, and then we got out and pressured them and that caused us problems because they're good with the ball and they can drive us," Rose said.
The Cougars' final push came when Tavernari hit back-to-back jumpers and Fredette made 1-of-2 free throws to close to 74-59. But two minutes and two 3-pointers later, UNLV was back up by 22.
"It was the best we've played so far this season as far as everybody being focused and battling and playing with intensity," said Willis, who finished with a game- and career-high 33 points for the Rebels.
Chace Stanback added 14 points and 14 rebounds for UNLV, and Shaw chipped in 13 points. For BYU, Fredette led the way again with 21 tough points. Tavernari scored 16 off the bench and Jackson Emery added 10.
The Cougars now have a week off before hosting Air Force next Saturday at the Marriott Center.
"It's a long process, and we're right in the middle of it and still in a good spot. We have to recover from this and move forward ... it's one game, so we will move forward," Rose said.