Wanting it

The power of an underdog’s desire is so often overlooked. Not many people thought the Rebels would beat top-ranked North Carolina Nov. 26 at the Orleans Arena, but someone forgot to tell the Rebels that they were supposed to lose. Before the game there was plenty of energy in the arena, with the Tar Heel faithful snapping pictures of the best team in the country, and Rebel fans getting used to seeing the stadium half-filled with Carolina Blue. The game was on national TV—but only because the Tar Heels were involved. The Rebels, to use a boxing concept, were just “the opponent.”

But something was special from the start, as the Rebels opened up 4 of 9 from the 3-point line and took a 17-9 lead. North Carolina settled things down, going to their big men inside and taking the lead—but the expected Tar Heel blitz never came. The Rebel defense was relentless, and UNLV’s own big men, led by Mike Moser, outfought Carolina’s vaunted frontline for rebounds. During a five-minute stretch during the first half, the Rebels scored just 4 points—but there they were at the end of the dry spell, leading 21-20. That’s all about tenacious defense. At halftime, the Rebels trailed by four, but it was clear that they were not about to yield.

At the start of the second, UNLV ran off 14 straight points. North Carolina fought back a couple of times, even cutting the lead to 5 points, but the Rebels had the heart and desire to keep pushing and pulled away for a 90-80 win. They never tightened up, never started playing “not to lose”—they kept attacking the basket, knocking down threes and playing like a team that wasn’t at all surprised to be beating the nation’s No. 1 squad.

You have to give credit to the coaching staff and the marvelous job they did in preparing the players for a game that most of them had only dreamed about. The memories they’ll have of this game will last for a lifetime, and the will and desire they showed on this Saturday night will go down in Runnin’ Rebel history.

Robert Smith, who played point guard for UNLV from 1974-77 and led the team to the 1977 Final Four, is the team’s radio color analyst on ESPN Radio 1100.