Rebels head to Albuquerque motivated by recent NCAA tournament shortcomings

Last year's lopsided loss to Illinois still stings UNLV veterans

Just a quick mention of last year’s NCAA tournament loss to Illinois, and Oscar Bellfield lets out a brief laugh.

Anthony Marshall lets out a sly smile and shakes his head.

But don’t let the instant reactions of the UNLV veterans who experienced the horror late last March in Tulsa, Okla., fool you. The embarrassment of that night still lingers, and they’ll tell you they’re bringing those sour memories to Albuquerque this weekend in their quest for postseason redemption.

“It’s very frustrating,” Marshall said. “The first year, we went in there and lost a heartbreaker. The second year, we went in and really didn’t play so well. We want to go in there, play 40 good minutes of basketball, defend like crazy, make things happy, play together on the offensive end and try to get that monkey off of our back.”

Two years ago, UNLV Dropped a 69-66 NCAA tournament opener to Northern Iowa in Oklahoma City that Marshall may even be selling short in labeling it as a heartbreaker. They were done in by a 27-foot 3-pointer from UNI’s Ali Farokhmanesh, who two days later hit an even gutsier trey in transition in the final minute that buried No. 1 seed Kansas.

Teams can ultimately accept losing like that in March. It’s not labeled as ‘madness’ for nothing. Those things happen every year.

But the way the Rebels lost in another No. 8 vs. No. 9 game last year to an Illinois team that had scuffled for much of the season and slipped into the tournament through the back door was something players don’t quickly forget.

Kendall Wallace, who was on the trip but did not play while still recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, specifically remembers a questionable offensive foul call on Derrick Jasper early in the game that spurred an Illini run that seemed to know no end.

By halftime, UNLV was down 46-24 and, for all intents and purposes, was already defeated.

“You try to avoid that feeling as much as you can, but everybody’s human and they feel that way sometimes,” Wallace said. “That was one of the closer (times) to feeling that way.”

Added Bellfield: “We got pounded. Really, physically, they beat us. They smacked us. It came out of nowhere. Going into these tournaments, you’ve got to know that everyone’s going to come after you.”

By Marshall’s account, UNLV had spent the week prior preparing for Illinois to try and hammer them inside with their seemingly endless wave of big, physical frontcourt weapons. Instead, Illinois fed off of its transition game, and the possessions were so quick and effective that the Rebels could never truly establish a defensive presence.

Marshall was visibly frustrated, and at halftime, stood up in the locker room to try and get his teammates to join him in not throwing in a towel and letting it get even worse.

“I just felt like we weren’t really playing hard,” Marshall recalled of his speech. “We had a lot of fans who traveled down there to watch us play, and I’m one of the more vocal leaders, so I was just telling people if you don’t want to play for yourself, go out there and do it for the people who came all the way out here to see us play. People (took time) off from their jobs, missing money that could be going to their families, but they’d rather be coming out here to watch us play and support us, so I just told them to go out there and do it for the community and the people who came to watch us play.”

About the only thing you could credit UNLV for all night was that they did not quit, playing tough in the second half before falling by the somewhat respectable margin of 73-62.

Just as many Rebel fans — likely more — will be making the trek to Albuquerque as UNLV’s veterans attempt to notch their first NCAA tournament victory. No. 6 UNLV will tip-off against No. 11 Colorado at around 7 p.m. Thursday night at The Pit, with the winner advancing to Saturday to meet whoever survives a clash between No. 3 Baylor and No. 14 South Dakota State.

The only current Rebel to win an NCAA tourney game at UNLV is Kendall Wallace, who was a freshman on the 2007-08 team the routed Kent State in the first round before losing to eventual national champion Kansas two days later.

Wallace has seen it all over five years at UNLV, and knows that on this trip to the NCAAs, the hurdle to clear is overcoming the team’s tendency to play inconsistent ball away from the Thomas & Mack Center.

“I think, obviously, a neutral site game and an away game is completely different,” Wallace said. “The atmosphere is completely different. We know we can play well away from home and on a neutral court, it’s just a matter of putting the 40 minutes together. We keep putting halves together, maybe 25 or 30 minutes, and we just aren’t finishing. I think that will be a different story in the NCAA tournament. We’ll be focused and make sure we make a statement.”

Starting with that loss to the Jayhawks, the program has lost three straight NCAA tournament games.

It has never dropped four straight.

“This year, I feel like we have a veteran group,” Marshall said. “We’ve really got to go in there right from the tip, and know every possession counts, because any possession you take off could really hurt you at the end.”

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As UNLV heads to Albuquerque in search of its first NCAA tournament win since 2008, the Rebels' favorable draw as a six-seed in Albuqeurque, N.M., on Sunday gave reason to think a little bigger. Winning just one game in the NCAA tournament would mark the 2011-12 season as a smashing success. Winning twice? Nothing's guaranteed, but it can definitely be done. And if they can, it could potentially set up the program's long-awaited first meeting with Duke since the 1991 national semifinal shocker.