Runnin' Rebels Win WAC Tournament Title
March 7, 1998
LAS VEGAS (AP) - It never used to be this hard for UNLV to make it to the NCAA tournament. The way the Runnin' Rebels have played in recent years, they're just happy to finally be back in.
UNLV earned its first NCAA tournament bid since 1991 Saturday night, capping an improbable run through the Western Athletic Conference tournament by beating No. 20 New Mexico 56-51.
Tyrone Nesby hit a short jumper to put UNLV ahead, then clinched the win with two free throws with 9.9 seconds left before a frenzied home crowd singing "Viva Las Vegas."
"You can't think of the big dance and not think of the Runnin' Rebels," UNLV forward Kevin Simmons said. "It's been awhile since UNLV's been in the tournament, but hopefully we're the start of another dynasty."
Not since a UNLV team coached by Jerry Tarkanian lost to Duke in the 1991 Final Four have the Runnin' Rebels gotten into the NCAA tournament. It didn't look like the streak would be broken this year, until UNLV ran off four straight wins, two over ranked opponents, to win the WAC tournament.
At one point, in fact, it looked like UNLV might not even qualify for the conference tournament. But, after star center Keon Clark was suspended and left the team, the Runnin' Rebels went 9-2 the rest of the way and were at their best when it counted in the tournament.
"Obviously this is the greatest moment in my young coaching career after a season where I learned a lot about coaching," UNLV third-year coach Bill Bayno said. "When you have a group of kids that care so much about each other, you become a very dangerous team when it comes tournament time."
Bayno then issued a warning for UNLV's first-round NCAA opponent.
"With the emotion and momentum swing we have undergone in the last two weeks, I wouldn't want to have to play us," he said.
UNLV (20-12) scored the last nine points of the game to come from four points down in the last 2:44. The Rebels did it by playing inspired zone defense that held New Mexico scoreless down the stretch.
New Mexico (23-7) was forced to shoot from outside, and couldn't make the long shots, especially at the end of the game when four straight 3-point attempts clanged off the rim. The Lobos hit only 4-of-28 3-pointers, and just 1-of-14 in the second half.
New Mexico played without its best outside shooter, Royce Olney, who was lost for the season last month with a knee injury.
"For the third game in a row they used the zone effectively to win," New Mexico coach Dave Bliss said. "That's why we really needed Olney in this game, to break their zone. We're a completely different team with him in the lineup."
Despite the loss, New Mexico figures to get a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"Yeah, we're already in the tournament, but when you play for a conference championship that's the first thing in your mind," Bliss said.
UNLV led most of the game, but trailed by a point when Nesby hit a 10-footer from the side to put the Runnin' Rebels ahead 52-51 with 1:18 left. After a New Mexico miss, Mark Dickel was fouled with 29.2 seconds remaining and made both free throws to give UNLV a three-point lead.
Lamont Long missed on two successive free throws and Nesby was fouled after getting the rebound, sending him to the line to ice the game with two more free throws.
New Mexico (23-7) had beaten UNLV twice during the regular season and appeared ready to do it again when Kenny Thomas went inside for a layup that gave the Lobos a 51-47 lead with 2:44 left in the game.
That was the last points New Mexico would score, however, as Dickel hit a 3-pointer to get UNLV close, and Nesby followed with a jumper to put the Rebels ahead.
Brian Keefe led UNLV with 18 points, Nesby had 14 and Kevin Simmons 13. Thomas, who was named tournament MVP, had 17 points and 13 rebounds for New Mexico and Long had 12 points.
"It was like I was living my childhood dream because I'm playing in a championship game to make it to the NCAA tournament and it's on national TV," Keefe said. "I'm still tingling but I know now we have to settle down and get ready for the big dance."
UNLV led the entire first half, taking its biggest lead of the game when Keefe hit a 3-pointer with 8:44 left to make it 23-10.
New Mexico came back with 10 straight points to cut the gap, but Keefe hit two more 3-pointers to help give the Runnin' Rebels a seven-point halftime lead.