The UNLV Runnin Rebels on the last day of 2008 turned the clock back almost 20 years to the glory days of top ranked Rebel teams of the past with a stunning one point 56-55 come from behind road victory in front of 19,000 screaming Cardinal fans at Freedom Hall in Louisville this after afternoon.
With Wink Adams sidelined with the lower abdominal strain he suffered in last weeks Rebel win over Southern Utah, Lon Kruger's stifling defense led the way to one of the most inspiring wins I have ever seen as a UNLV fan.
The first half was all Rebels. With Rene Rougeau making everyone forget that Curtis Terry is no longer the leader of the Runnin Rebels, the defense held the Cardinals to 21 first half points while opening up an 11 point lead. Rougeau is nothing short of remarkable. In his time on the court which was considerable he totaled 17 points, most of them banging in the paint with battleships to contend with.
He went 8-9 from the field with eight rebounds and four assists. What the stats don't show was his tenacity on defense and he was right there on every loose ball and seemed to reach back to keep the game close when the Rebels cooled off considerably in the second half.
Knowing full well that Rick Pitino would make the necessary adjustments in the second half, the Cardinals went on a 16-5 run to take the lead for the first time with three minutes to play.This Cardinal team with a 15 game home winning streak was not about to fold. At this point in the game it became the Tre'Von Willis/Oscar Bellfield show. Willis hit on six straight free throws and Oscar slashed his way in the paint to keep the Rebels close in the closing minutes of this lead changing game.
With less than 40 seconds remaining in the game Bellfield did his thing. The LA freshman drove through the lane and threw up a floater that seemed the hang on the glass forever. When it fell, the Rebels had regained the one point lead with 15 seconds to play. The defense that held the Cardinals to 29%, which was amazing all game, then closed the door with a stop with two seconds to play.
The Rebels ran out the clock and when I stopped screaming I knew for certain that 2008 was going to end on a very positive note.
With wins over Arizona and Louisville two perrenial top ten powers the Runnin Rebels have finally taken the biggest step in the Lon Kruger era by winning big games against big time opponents at home and on the road. Although they have made two very nice runs in the NCAA Tournament in the past two years, their regular season has repeatedly been marred by not being able to beat these types of teams. Today they proved they could.
The momentum created by this win today should certainly put some fear into Mountain West opponents as conference play begins next week. I can't begin to tell you how good this game was to watch. If we can continue with this intensity for the next two months there will be no doubt where we will be playing in March.
Two years ago we made the sweet 16, last year we lost to eventual champion Kansas in the second round. This year, 2009 just may start to resemble 1990 all over again.