With less than a minute remaining Saturday night in UNLV’s 90-80 upset of No. 1 North Carolina, Rebel fans swelled around the edges of the Orleans Arena court, barely able to contain themselves until the final buzzer sounded and the celebration could begin. For many of those fans, this was their initiation, the night they became fully vested in UNLV history, the night when they no longer had to be content listening to stories of how much better things were in the old days.
For an entire new generation of Rebel fans, Saturday night’s win is the moment that UNLV reasserted itself as a national basketball power. Move over Jerry Tarkanian and Larry Johnson. Hello, Dave Rice and Mike Moser. Some could argue that the Rebels’ victory over No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the 2007 NCAA tournament, which gave UNLV a berth in the Sweet 16, is the program’s best victory since the Tarkanian era, which ended in 1992. But while that win was substantial, it doesn’t carry the resonance that Saturday’s shocker does.
When the Rebels upset the Badgers in 2007, it rekindled Las Vegas’ passion for the team on a level that hadn’t been felt since UNLV was an annual fixture in the Top 25. But that was also a team that greatly overachieved in not only reaching the Sweet 16 under coach Lon Kruger, but just in gaining a spot that year in the NCAA field of 64. It was a team that would have been nondescript if not for a short-lived rule that allowed Kevin Kruger to transfer to UNLV that season to play for his father without having to sit out a year. Yes, we tried to convince ourselves that the 2007 postseason run really was comparable to the glory years and that UNLV was back on the national radar, but deep down we really knew that we were just an unexpected guest at that year’s party.
Saturday’s win is different for a few reasons. First, the victory over North Carolina is the first time the Rebels have knocked off the nation’s top team since Anderson Hunt’s 3-pointer eliminated Arizona from the 1989 NCAA tournament. Second, while the 2007 win over Wisconsin was the high-water mark of the Lon Kruger era, it was quickly followed by a loss to Oregon that ended the season. Saturday’s victory will resonate throughout the rest of the season, and could serve as an impetus to even more significant wins down the road. And while the 2007 team peaked at just the right time, this year’s squad is still figuring things out under new coach Dave Rice and has significantly more talent both in the post and in the backcourt.
Perhaps in another 20 years, fans who watched Saturday’s game will be able to relive the night when they watched another great era of UNLV basketball take shape. At the very least, a new generation of Rebel fans now has a moment it can call its own.