CHICAGO — When Quintrell Thomas stepped to the free throw line with 1:35 left in the first half on Saturday, he showed something off that he hadn't had very many chances to so far in his frustrating junior season.
Thomas hit the free throw to cap an old-fashioned 3-point play, and it was one of several key moments for the 6-foot-8 forward in the Rebels' much-needed 64-48 victory over 19th-ranked Illinois at the United Center in Chicago.
Thomas, who just last Saturday at Wisconsin recorded the first 'Did Not Play' of his UNLV career and has regularly struggled in brief stints as a reserve, played 19 minutes, producing a season-high 13 points to go with seven rebounds—all in the second half—and two blocked shots.
"It felt really good," Thomas said of his slump-busting performance. "Obviously, I haven't played as well as I did last year, so it feels good just finally showing some resemblance of how I used to play."
The 13 points, as it turned out, were a nice bonus for Dave Rice and his staff to get from Thomas, as he was originally inserted into the game for a different purpose.
UNLV's (11-2) defensive strategy centered around neutralizing Illinois' (10-1) surging 7-foot-1 sophomore, Meyers Leonard. He came into the game averaging 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, but the Rebels' scouting report—compiled by assistant coach Stacey Augmon—showed that the Illini would try to establish him early and run the offense through the post.
To combat that, UNLV double-teamed him every time he touched the ball early on with the hopes of throwing Leonard off by getting physical against him. They used that approach just long enough to derail him, and it ended up having a lingering effect that lasted the entire game, as Leonard scored a season-low seven points in 33 minutes.
"He's of course a great player, but he's tall and long, and me and Brice (Massamba), for example, are both close to 250 (pounds)," Thomas said. "Our center of gravity is lower, so we were able to just push him off the block a lot more than I'm guessing he's used to seeing."
That strategy, of course, came with some built-in risk, as it left Illinois' bevy of outside shooters a handful of open 3-point looks early in the game.
The gamble paid off. Illinois was just 3-of-11 from 3-point range in the first half, and 7-of-25 for the game. Outside of D.J. Richardson's 5-of-8 showing from deep, the Illini were just 2-of-17.
"We know they can knock down open shots," junior guard Justin Hawkins said. "I just think our defensive pressure was really top notch today."
After a while, UNLV's defensive pressure led the Illini to question their own shot selection, as Brandon Paul began forcing up awkward shots, and resident outside gunner Sam Maniscalco became somewhat hesitant to pull the trigger. He was just 1-of-10 from the floor and 1-of-7 from 3-point territory.
UNLV made Illinois work for everything it got as the Illini were just 16-of-63 from the floor, and a crowd of 15,144 that was filled with orange had very few opportunities to get excited.
"We watched last year's NCAA tournament game (Friday night)," coach Rice said. "We didn't watch it for any type of revenge factor, it had nothing to do with that. It was because last year in the NCAA tournament, we didn't make them earn any baskets. After the first two baskets of the game, the rest were layups in transition where we didn't get back and second-chance opportunities."
This time, Illinois had zero fast break points and only five second-chance points.
On the other end, that was when Thomas and the UNLV bigs also came up, well, big.
With Illinois ice cold from the perimeter, UNLV wasn't much better. The starting perimeter trio of Chace Stanback, Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield was just 2-of-15 from the floor, and as a team, the Rebels were just 3-of-11 from deep.
In the paint, though, UNLV out-scored Illinois 36-16.
Each of the four members of the Rebels' front court rotation contributed in a different way.
Thomas's first two buckets came on mid-range jumpers, and after hitting those, he found a groove within UNLV's half-court offense better than he had at any previous point this year.
Brice Massamba started off hot, scoring six of his eight points early in the first half, while Carlos Lopez had six points in 13 minutes off of the bench.
The glue to the entire offense was Mike Moser, who busted a 3-game slump that came after he sprained his right wrist last Tuesday. For the first time since then, he played without a wrap at the base of his hand and around his thumb. In turn, he had a team-high 17 points to go with his 11 rebounds, and looked more confident in his shot and with the ball in his hands than he had since suffering the injury.
"I think taking the tape off kind of helped me," he said. "I guess it was more mental than anything playing with that.
"I definitely could sense their frustration. They got stagnant, it definitely goes a lot to our coaching staff—our scouting this week was incredible. We knew just about everything they were about to do, we were able to switch about every move they had, and they just couldn't do much against us."
UNLV headed back to Las Vegas afterwards with one more busy week ahead of them before getting their first four-day break between games since the start of the season. That will come following Friday's home game against Pac-12 title contender Cal. The week begins with Louisiana-Monroe coming to town on Monday night.
More importantly, it gives UNLV two wins during the non-conference season on what will be deemed as neutral sites against Top-20 competition. The Rebels' résumé for postseason play is already looking strong, and Saturday's win snuck them back onto the national radar after losing a bit of steam with losses at Wisconsin and Wichita State.
"We can't keep losing to the good teams—I don't know how the Mountain West is going to be this year, so we have to get as many good wins as we can," Thomas said. We just wanted to come in here and make a statement, show everyone that we actually are really good.
"You get the feel around the country that everyone wants to love us, but we've got to give them a reason to. Now we've won a couple of good games, we have to keep it rolling."
Saturday notes …
• Rice said after the game that his players, in the pregame locker room, dedicated the game to Maruqette transfer Reggie Smith. The 6-foot sophomore guard and Chicago native had long thought that Saturday would be his UNLV debut, but with the school's fall semester not technically ending until Saturday, he was not able to become eligible in time for the team's Friday flight to Chicago. Instead, he'll make his Rebels debut Monday night against Louisiana-Monroe.
• A major factor in UNLV being able to keep Illinois at arm's length for almost the entire second half was free throw shooting. The Rebels were 17-of-20 from the stripe.