The Rebels beat opponents this season by an average of 31 points. They beat the Aggies by 31 Wednesday night in Thomas and Mack, 124-93.
But at halftime, No. 1-ranked UNLV was questioning itself, the Rebels were facing an irate Jerry Tarkanian in their dressing room, the Aggies were patting themselves on the back, Kendall Young-blood had played like a wild man with 21 first-half points and the crowd of 18,792 was buzzing about Utah State.This time the fight was on the scoreboard, not on the floor, and the Aggies were holding their own - at least for half the game. UNLV's five-point lead at intermission, 59-54, was its smallest of the season, and the Runnin' Rebels couldn't shake Utah State.
"It was more that Utah State was playing well than that we played poorly," said Tarkanian.
"I don't think they thought we could play that well," said Aggie guard Jay Goodman, who finished with 20 points.
The Shark's boys smelled blood at times in the first half but couldn't find the source. Every time UNLV got ahead by five or six, the Aggies came back to tie or at least get within a long-range basket.
"Utah State played us tougher than anybody except Michigan State," said Tarkanian, who thanked the Aggies for being Rebel rousers. "They've heard so much about how good they are, it's good for Utah State to cut 'em up a little," said Tarkanian.
For a half, the Aggie game plan worked superbly, and they downed 53 percent of their shots, including six of seven three-pointers - two from Youngblood and three from Goodman.
Coach Kohn Smith's idea was to spread the Vegas defense by bringing the motion far past the three-point line so cutting lanes would be wider with Rebel big men up high and guards could sometimes drive the baseline in what he called an inverted offense. The long baskets reinforced the fact that the Rebs had to spread out, and the three-guard system with Youngblood, Goodman and Allen Gordon sharing ballhandling worked well on the lengthened perimeter.
"They back-picked us a lot and broke down our pressure, and we got beat on the dribble," said Tarkanian, who was most impressed with Goodman. "The reports on Goodman were that he was a good shooter but couldn't put the ball on the floor. I was surprised," said Tarkanian. "Goodman beat us a lot on the dribble, and our big guys didn't rotate down." That was what had Tarkanian fuming at the half.
"I don't think I'm that good with the ball," said Goodman, noting his five turnovers, "but I'm proud of the way I played. I didn't panic."
It was the first time against the Rebels for Goodman, a transfer sophomore, and freshmen like Eric Franson and Bryon Ruffner.
Franson, Roger Daley and Jeff Parris did a strong job early against UNLV's big men, holding All-American Larry Johnson to 16 and center George Ackles to 12 during the first half.
But there's always that second half.
The Rebs got running, and Johnson completed the night with 31 points and 15 rebounds. Greg Anthony scored 25, Ackles had 16 and Stacey Augmon 15. Guard Travis Bice, who started in place of Anderson Hunt, who was out with a bad knee, made four three-pointers.
"We were still trying to do the same things; we just did them a little better," understated Tarkanian.
The Rebs were in the Aggie passing lanes for four quick steals and big-time buckets to open the half, and they were up by 12 in less than two minutes.
Anthony was the catalyst, directing traffic, swooping for layins and swiping three balls in the half. "Greg was sensational the second half," said Tarkanian.
"He kicked it into gear and really hurt us," said Smith.
Anthony credited Johnson and Stacey Augmon for being his safety net. "I know I've got great guys behind me, so it allows me to play hard and be aggressive," he said.
The Rebels were splendid while Utah State disappointed Smith, particularly Youngblood, who didn't score the second half. "He went out kind of casually - `I had 21 the first half; I'm kinda cool,' " said Smith. "I didn't think we played as hard; we got into a comfortable mode."
So did UNLV, playing everyone on its bench and still jacking up the score. Even Melvin Love, activated Wednesday and not expecting to see any action, got in four minutes and scored five points and got five rebounds. He's the transfer from Clark County Community College who spent his first two years at Salt Lake Community College, playing one year there.
Not that Bill Walton noticed Love. By the time Love got into the game, the former UCLA/NBA star seated courtside was thumbing through the Aggie media guide, waiting for the whole thing to get over with.