The Heroes of March

Four Rebels who found immortality amid the madness

Anderson Hunt in the NCAA Tournament against Arizona in 1989 | Photo courtesy of UNLV athletics

Anderson Hunt in the NCAA Tournament against Arizona in 1989 | Photo courtesy of UNLV athletics

In its 55 years of existence, the UNLV basketball team has experienced some unforgettable postseason triumphs, most notably four trips to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, crowned by a national championship in 1990. But some of the Rebels’ greatest March moments didn’t lead to the ultimate prize. This is a look back at some of those other season-defining successes, and the players either directly or largely responsible for creating those lasting memories.

Eric Booker | 1983

It had already been a special season for the Rebels. They had won their first 24 games to become just the third team since preseason polls began in 1961-62 to go from unranked to No. 1 in the nation (joining UCLA in 1963-64 and Indiana State in 1978-79), and now they were battling rival Fresno State for the Pacific Coast Athletic Association tournament championship at the Forum in Los Angeles.

Eric Booker in 1983. | Photo Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Eric Booker in 1983. | Photo Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

The game was tied with 10 seconds left in overtime, and Fresno State had the ball. UNLV senior star Sidney Green deflected a pass into the post, and the ball landed in Eric Booker’s hands with time running down. Booker, who had missed the only shot he had taken in the game at that point, dribbled down the left side and pulled up just inside the NBA 3-point line with two seconds left, nailing the 23-foot shot to clinch UNLV’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1977.

The shot has become part of Rebel lore, exaggerated to the point that even former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian has referred to it as a “half-court shot” in interviews decades later. “As hard as we played in that game and in overtime, I wouldn’t have even come close to making a shot from half court,” Booker says. “At the end of that game, when everybody ran toward the middle of the court [in celebration], I had nothing left. We played our hearts out in that game.”

Booker, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from San Francisco, was an unlikely hero for the Rebels. He averaged just 9 points per game that season, and his assigned task against Fresno State, which went on to win the 1983 National Invitation Tournament championship, was to defend Bulldogs guard Mitch Arnold.

“When I got the ball, I looked at Danny [Tarkanian] and I looked at the clock almost at the same time, and I thought there was no time for me to pass the ball. I hadn’t made a shot that whole day, and I thought, ‘Just get down there and put it up. The worse thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to miss it and we’re going to a second overtime.’”

Fresno State, under coach Boyd Grant, employed a zone defense that held opponents to a nation-low 53 points per game. The Bulldogs smothered the Rebels early in the game, jumping out to a 23-6 lead and taking a nine-point edge into halftime. The Rebels rallied in the second half, and Danny Tarkanian’s 3-pointer with 33 seconds left sent the game into overtime.

The game was representative of UNLV’s season, as it was the sixth time the Rebels had rallied to win after trailing by 12 points or more. Ironically, though, they squandered a 12-point lead in their opening NCAA tournament game and lost to North Carolina State, which was in the midst of a magical run of its own to win the national championship.

“If we had won that game,” says Booker, a former casino executive in Las Vegas who is now casino director at Snoqualmie Casino in the Seattle area, “who knows what could have happened? It might have been our destiny.”

Anderson Hunt | 1989

Even if anderson hunt had never won a national championship or played in two Final Fours over the next two years, he would have forever become a UNLV hero for hitting what ought to be known in Las Vegas as simply The Shot: a 3-pointer with two seconds left to give the Rebels a 68-67 upset victory over Arizona in the 1989 NCAA tournament. The victory in Denver sent UNLV to the Elite Eight, and brought a crushing end to the Wildcats’ season.

“That’s the only thing people remember about that whole year, is that shot against Arizona,” Hunt says. “If I’m in Vegas, it gets brought up a lot. And I get Arizona fans who are like, ‘Man, I hated you. You killed us with that shot.’”

The Rebels had a strong team that year, entering the tournament ranked No. 15 in the nation, and they cruised past Idaho and DePaul in the first two rounds. But as 8½-point underdogs, they certainly weren’t expected to beat Arizona, the nation’s top-ranked team. The Wildcats had reached the Final Four in 1988, and led by senior forward Sean Elliott, the national player of the year, they seemed on their way to winning it all.

A winning pair: Anderson Hunt with Jerry Tarkanian  in 1989. | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

A winning pair: Anderson Hunt with Jerry Tarkanian
in 1989. | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

The teams had met early in the season in a nationally televised game in Tucson, and Arizona had won 86-75 as Elliott had 32 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, and four UNLV starters fouled out. It was the Rebels’ fourth game of the season, and seven of the 10 players who participated were new to the team: Hunt, George Ackles, Greg Anthony, David Butler, Moses Scurry, James Jones and Barry Young, with Stacey Augmon, Stacey Cvijanovich and Clint Rossum as the only returning players.

“Once we started playing together, toward the end of the season, we were a team,” Hunt says. “So once we played Arizona [the second time], we had the revenge factor, and we were a better team than we were earlier in the season. The team they faced in Tucson was a totally different team than the one they faced in Denver. We had gained confidence, and we had started playing well at the right time.”

In the rematch, the Rebels led 65-58 with 5:35 left in the second half, but Arizona scored nine straight points to go up 67-65 with 1:33 remaining. UNLV took possession with 30 seconds left after the Wildcats were called for traveling. Hunt received the ball deep in the backcourt with 10 seconds on the clock and future Major League Baseball star Kenny Lofton guarding him. As Hunt drove right, Lofton jumped in front of him and was bumped to the ground. Hunt did a pirouette, gathered himself and hit nothing but net. Ackles then stole Arizona’s desperation inbounds pass to clinch the victory.

“It surprised me that [Lofton] tried to take a charge,” says Hunt, who finished with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 5-for-8 on 3s. “At that time we didn’t call it a flop, but he flopped. It surprised me, because he was a great athlete. That really left me wide open. That was a gift.”

Expending so much energy beating Arizona took its toll on UNLV in the next round, and Seton Hall used its size advantage inside to gain a 23-point victory and end the Rebels’ season. But with Larry Johnson added to the team’s nucleus the following year, the players fulfilled a promise they made to each other after losing to the Pirates.

“Once we lost that game to Seton Hall, we said as a team that we would be back next year in Denver [for the Final Four],” Hunt says. “We were right there. We got a taste. We even got sized for our Final Four rings before we lost. All that felt so good. I remember that plain as day.”

Tyrone Nesby | 1998

As the only senior starter on the Rebels, Tyrone Nesby knew he had to take charge to save his season. But in doing so, he had to relinquish some control. And with a renewed trust in his teammates, Nesby led UNLV on the most unlikely run in program history, winning four games in five days at the Thomas & Mack Center, all as an underdog, to earn the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship, and claim a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Rebels’ 1990-91 Final Four season.

“No one expected us to do what we did, and that’s what made it so sweet,” Nesby says. “I told the guys, ‘It’s just like getting a Christmas gift that you thought you were never going to get.’ I was extremely happy with the guys, because there’s no way we would have won it if everybody hadn’t done their part.”

The Rebels entered the WAC tournament with a record of 16-12 after a regular season marked with continuous disruption, including the loss of NBA-bound senior center Keon Clark, who was suspended twice before quitting the team. Clark played in just 10 games, forcing third-year coach Bill Bayno to start 12 different lineups.

It was a lineup of Nesby, freshman center Kaspars Kambala, sophomore point guard Mark Dickel and two junior transfers from UC Irvine, forward Kevin Simmons and guard Brian Keefe, along with freshmen reserves Donovan Stewart and “Greedy” Daniels and sophomore center Issiah Epps, that banded together to win the WAC title. They first defeated Hawaii; then No. 5 Utah, which had lost just twice all season and would go on to face Kentucky in the national championship game; followed by a win over a talented Fresno State team coached by Jerry Tarkanian; and they capped the run with a 56-51 triumph over No. 20 New Mexico in the championship game. The Rebels outscored the Lobos 9-0 over the final 2:47, and Nesby’s turnaround jumper put UNLV ahead with 1:19 left. He clinched the celebration by making two free throws with 9.9 seconds left.

With the suspension of Keon Clark, Tyrone Nesby became the Rebels’ leader in 1998.  | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

With the suspension of Keon Clark, Tyrone Nesby became the Rebels’ leader in 1998. | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

“During the regular season, especially when Keon was out, I was trying to shoot the ball a lot,” Nesby says. “I didn’t really trust the guys. I thought I had to carry the team, and didn’t really believe in the guys we had. But it finally clicked, and we just fed off of each other. One thing about our team, you just didn’t know who was going to step up. And I think you’re more dangerous that way, because teams don’t know how to play you. Of course, everybody tried to focus a lot on me, but at the same time, we still had a lot of talent.”

Nesby averaged 17 points to lead the Rebels over the four-game run, and was named to the WAC All-Tournament team along with Dickel and Keefe. Yet it was New Mexico star Kenny Thomas who the media voted tourney MVP.

“That pissed me off. It really did. I’m not even gonna lie,” Nesby says. “I told Brian Keefe, ‘Dude, they robbed me.’ I was very pissed off. [The media] already had New Mexico beating us, and they had made up their minds that he was the MVP, no matter what. And that’s when you know you’re an underdog.”

The Rebels’ NCAA experience didn’t last long, as they lost 69-57 to Princeton in the first round in Hartford, Connecticut. But that season will always be remembered for that five-day stretch in Las Vegas.

“If we had played a team that was more like us, we probably would have won that [NCAA] game,” Nesby says. “But we had a lot of young guys, too, so what we did with what we had, it was great.”

Kevin Kruger | 2007

The rebels were down 41-32 to byu in the second half of the Mountain West Conference tournament final at the Thomas & Mack Center, just five weeks after the Cougars had destroyed them by 27 points in Provo, Utah. UNLV, which was ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since the 1992-93 season, was assured a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years, but it was looking like another disappointing end to conference play, the Rebels having lost three straight MWC title games from 2002-04. Then, with 16:49 left, UNLV guard Kevin Kruger was fouled while making a 3-pointer. The four-point play sparked a comeback that would carry the Rebels through their most successful March in 16 years.

Kruger was in his first season at UNLV, taking advantage of a new rule that allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year if they had graduated with eligibility remaining. That gave the senior an opportunity to play for his father, UNLV coach Lon Kruger, and he made the most of it, not only helping the Rebels defeat BYU 78-70 to win the MWC title, but also to gain their first two NCAA tournament victories since 1991.

It was an experienced UNLV team that Kruger joined that season, yet one that didn’t have an established star. The only NBA-bound player on the roster, senior center Joel Anthony, came off the bench and was a defensive force, not a primary offensive option. Senior Michael Umeh and sophomore Wink Adams joined Kruger in providing perimeter scoring; seniors Gaston Essengue and Wendell White excelled inside; and role players such as junior Curtis Terry and sophomores Joe Darger and René Rougeau made the kind of contributions that didn’t always show up in the box score.

“It just kinda shows how mature that group was,” Kruger says. “Everybody sacrificed something to make it happen. Nobody really cared about who was getting the attention; the goal was just to win from Day One. And because we shared that goal we had a chance of accomplishing it.”

Kevin Kruger helps the Rebels run past Georgia Tech in the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

Kevin Kruger helps the Rebels run past Georgia Tech in the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. | Photos Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

The Rebels seemed to have a different hero each game during their Sweet Sixteen run. Kruger was named Mountain West tournament MVP, largely for scoring 21 points in each of UNLV’s first two games, but it was Umeh who led the Rebels with 18 points in the win over BYU. And while White scored 19 and 22 points, respectively, in the team’s two NCAA wins in Chicago, it was a late blocked shot by Anthony that secured the Rebels’ 67-63 first-round victory over Georgia Tech, while Terry scored five points in the final minute and a half of their 74-68 upset of second-seeded Wisconsin. In that game, Kruger again sparked UNLV in the second half, hitting three straight 3-pointers before getting fouled on another attempt and making all three free throws. There would be no big shots the following weekend, though, and the Rebels’ season ended with a 76-72 loss to Oregon in St. Louis.

“We were four points away from being considered one of the top eight teams in America,” says Kruger, now a graduate assistant under his father at Oklahoma. “And immediately afterward, it didn’t really hit until you sat back and thought about it. It was a pretty big deal. It kinda puts things into perspective when Tarkanian’s teams were No. 1 in the nation. I can only imagine what that would’ve been like.”

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