Monday's big-time game in the Spectrum officially started moments after 10 p.m. It unofficially ended a few moments later when UNLV rushed to a 16-0 lead that would have been 20-0 if the Rebs had made their free throws.

"Sixteen-oh," mused Utah State's Kendall Youngblood. "The game's over right then.""I didn't know if we were going to make a basket," said Aggie Coach Kohn Smith.

But this 126-83 UNLV Big West Conference/ESPN-TV victory really started - and was really just about over with, too - almost three weeks ago, on Jan. 9 in Las Vegas, when Utah State made the Rebels take notice.

On that night, the Aggies played their game plan to perfection for a half. Yes, it became a 124-93 loss, but it was 59-54 at the half, and UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said Monday it's still the best half anybody's played against his unbeaten, top-ranked defending NCAA champions who've now won all 16 this year and a school-record 27 in a row.

He used that for motivation Monday.

"I think we got our kids scared a little bit. They really played well early," said Tarkanian.

"What Utah State did against us at our place," he added, "was that (Jay) Goodman ran wild against us, and Youngblood ran wild against us. I think we had them scouted a lot better this time. We had a better defensive plan this time."

Tarkanian said UNLV's pre-Jan. 9 scouting report on Goodman was that he was a standstill jump shooter who couldn't dribble. "He just blew by us," Tarkanian said. Monday, Tark had guard Anderson Hunt back in the lineup - he'd missed the first game with a knee injury - and Hunt was assigned to search and destroy Goodman. "We told him not to help out on anyone; he did a great job," Tarkanian said.

"Yeah, he did," said Goodman, who had 14 points Monday on 4-of-16 shooting, 1-for-6 on three-pointers. He said his shots felt good, even though they were sometimes taken off-balance. He said that could have been due to Hunt.

"And then we had the perfect matchup on Youngblood with (Stacey) Augmon," Tarkanian said.

Actually, Youngblood finished Monday's game with a career-record 28 points, high for either team, but at UNLV he'd had a 21-point first half that scared the bejeebers out of the Rebs. They definitely remembered it.

"I'd rather win," said Youngblood, "but individual things are nice."

He said it came at a good time, since Monday's game was one of the few his mother, working in Oakland and watching on TV, has had the chance to see this season. And, he said, he can tell his grandchildren about getting a career high against the No. 1 team in the nation.

"We had the same game plan; we didn't change anything," said Youngblood. "We just didn't screen as well."

Said Goodman, "We tried to spread them out and penetrate. We'd get around one guy, and another one was there. They stepped it up a notch."

The Aggies missed their first four shots and committed three fouls and three turnovers in the first three minutes. The only thing UNLV missed was a couple of free throws in building an 11-0 margin. The Ags called timeout and missed their next three shots, committed two more fouls and took too long inbounding a ball. That made it 16-0.

"Then it became a mental thing," said Smith. "We didn't know if we could make a basket, and they'd come back and score. That is so disheartening."

When the Ags did score, UNLV countered with three-pointers.

"It's enough for them just to have those big guys beating up on people," said Smith, "but then they pump in those three-pointers. It hurts."

While Tarkanian thought his team had done well defensing Youngblood, Smith thought the Aggies did well on Johnson, even if he did have 24 points (and 12 rebounds, to tie Aggie Roger Daley). "We played Johnson pretty good, and then they come up with those three-point shots," Smith said. "That's the mark of a good team. They don't have weaknesses."

Randy Funk was charged with guarding Rebel centers George Ackles and Elmore Spencer. "I didn't feel overwhelmed," said Funk. "I felt like I was leaning against a granite pillar most of the night." Ackles had six points and two rebounds; Spencer had 10 points, nine rebounds.

There was no respite. The Ags cut a 17-point lead to 11, then got down by 27 and held for a few minutes into the second half. Then UNLV outscored them 17-0, on the way to 91-50, thanks to nine straight missed Ag shots, four fouls and five turnovers. The largest Rebel lead was 118-73.

Youngblood was glad to see it end. "Now we can concentrate on second or third in the conference," he said.

Remarkably, after three straight losses, that's true. The toughest part of the schedule is over for USU, and it's just one game out of third place. Other contenders still have difficult games to go. "We're OK," says Smith. "We're in shape to finish strong."