Never again will a scream in the face from Mike Moser or an accidental kick in the back from Reggie Smith feel so good for Kendall Wallace.
The reaction from the UNLV bench came in the midst of the signature moment of Wallace’s frustrating senior season — a four-point play that ultimately helped the Rebels pull away from Wyoming on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, 74-63.
“I couldn’t have planned it any better,” Wallace said. “I’m just thankful that I got the opportunity. It was kind of like a storybook type of thing that went on today.”
Wallace’s story is well-known by this point.
He missed the 2010-11 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, but after coming back from the injury, cartilage damage in the same knee would provide a nagging issue for him to have to battle all season long as a fifty-year senior.
It wasn’t until the last two weeks in which Wallace felt like he was close to 100 percent.
Just in time for him to get the starting nod in his final home game.
In a game that never really had much flow, was abnormally physical and was slowed down by 46 foul calls, Wallace gave UNLV (25-7 overall, 9-5 Mountain West) all of the push it needed in the second half when leading the pesky Cowboys (20-10, 6-8) by a slim margin at 50-47 with 12 minutes left to play.
First, off of a kick-out to the right wing by fellow senior Oscar Bellfield, Wallace cashed a 3-pointer that brought a sell-out crowd of 18,577 to life. A minute later, on a nearly identical play, Wallace hit the same shot, this time ketting knocked to the deck in the process by Wyoming’s Paco Cruz.
He fell in front of the bench, and every one of his teammates surrounded Wallace in celebration as the building practically erupted.
Wyoming had scratched and clawed to stay close all night, but with two swift blows, Wallace scored seven straight points and put them in a hole deep enough that they couldn’t seriously threaten again.
Wallace has had his share of huge moments along the way during his lengthy UNLV career, such as a four-point play against Northern Arizona for his first career points or a 21-point explosion that saved the Rebels in a road game at New Mexico two years ago.
First-year coach Dave Rice had said all along through Wallace’s struggles that at some point, he’d be needed to come up big for the Rebels. And on Saturday it did.
Combining the situation in the game with the pageantry and finality of Senior Night, this one ranks right up there with the other key highlights in Wallace’s career. He finished the night going 3-of-4 from long range and with a season-high 14 points.
“I’ll never forget it,” Wallace said. “Your college career is about making memories, and that’s one of the better ones I’ve had so far.”
Wallace wasn’t the only senior to come up big on Saturday.
Bellfield scored seven points and recorded nine assists in 33 minutes, while center Brice Massamba scored a career-high 15 points in 31 minutes played.
The only senior to struggle in his home finale was forward Chace Stanback. Despite his inconsistencies in conference play this year, Stanback has been an elite performer at the Mack. But on Saturday, he went scoreless for the first time this season. His first two shot attempts didn’t draw the iron, and he got in early foul trouble, which led to him not playing a whole lot in the second half as the rest of his teammates ultimately found a groove.
However, no performance from Saturday night might mean more moving forward than the one turned in by sophomore forward Mike Moser.
Moser’s stellar season had hit the skids of late as he fought a bout with fatigue. In the Rebels’ last four games, he was just 8-of-34 from the floor with 26 points and 26 rebounds, capped by his least effective performance of the season in Wednesday’s road loss at Colorado State, scoring only five points and grabbing two rebounds in 26 minutes.
Moser was again dominant both as a scorer and on the glass against the Cowboys, going for 17 points and 12 rebounds. It was his 14th double-double of the season, and his first in seven games.
“That was definitely huge for me,” Moser said. “It was kind of like a sigh (of relief), I can relax a little more and just play. I’d been pressing the last couple of games. I’m just glad we’re getting it back rolling.
“You can see it — We struggle when I’m not showing up and doing my job. It was a big part of why we struggled last week.”
The cherry on top was that the victory over Wyoming clinched UNLV’s first undefeated season at home since the 1991-92 campaign — Jerry Tarkanian’s final year at the helm, which oddly enough wrapped up 20 years ago to the day with a home victory over Utah State.
And while it was UNLV’s final official home game of the 2011-12 season, Saturday’s victory finalized the bracket for the upcoming Mountain West tournament, which gets underway Thursday afternoon.
The noon quarterfinal will take place between top-seeded San Diego State and Boise State. Whoever emerges victorious will face the winner of the 2:30 p.m. contest between No. 4 Colorado State and No. 5 TCU on Friday evening.
Both New Mexico and SDSU rallied late for wins on Saturday, giving them each a share of the league’s regular season title. The Aztecs took the top seed due to their season sweep of TCU.
No. 2 New Mexico will take on Air Force at 6 p.m. Thursday, followed by a third meeting between No. 3 UNLV and Wyoming at 8:30 p.m., which promises to be just as physical as Saturday’s tussle.
Welcome to March.
“It definitely got us ready for that,” Moser said. “This was really a revenge game for us, but we’ve still got a sour taste in our mouth from losing to them up in Laramie. The next game’s even bigger. We evened up the score, but I think we’ll feel a little better if we won two against their one.”