LAS VEGAS — Missouri, which was ranked in the top 10 earlier this season but had fallen out of the top 20 in recent weeks, became only the fourth team to beat Nevada Las Vegas in the five-season history of the Thomas and Mack Center, when it defeated the Rebels, 81-79, Saturday.
The Tigers (16-5) did it by racing to a 15-point lead in the first half and withstanding the Rebels' comeback, finally winning after UNLV's Karl James missed a three-point shot with 11 seconds remaining.
It was the second home loss of the season for seventh-ranked UNLV. They were beaten here by UC Santa Barbara in January. The only other teams ever to win here are Georgetown, which beat UNLV in 1984--the year the Hoyas won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship--and UC Irvine, which beat UNLV here in 1986. The Rebels, 86-4 in Thomas and Mack, had never lost here twice in a season until now. UNLV (21-3) also lost at Santa Barbara.
"We've had some great wins at Missouri, and this one goes right in there with the best," said Norm Stewart, who is in his 21st season as Missouri coach.
Missouri, playing in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 19,000 and without Derrick Chievous, its All-American forward who fouled out with 1:53 remaining, took its final 81-79 lead when guard Lee Coward made one of two free throws with 31 seconds remaining.
Karl James was hardly the ideal player to take UNLV's last shot. Normally a fine outside shooter, James made only 2 of 14 attempts in the game, and was 0 for 4 from three-point range. In the first half, he missed all six shots he took, including two three-point shots. And on the Rebels' next-to-last possession, he forced a shot--and missed--in the lane.
But with Jarvis Basnight tightly guarded, and Gerald Paddio also unable to get free, James pulled up for a 22-foot shot. It went in and out, and Missouri rebounded and ran out the clock.
"I think I just should have gone for the two," James said afterward. "Not that I don't think I could make the three. I'm not afraid to take the big shot."
A two-point basket, of course, would probably have sent the game into overtime but also would have given Missouri a final possession. A three-point shot would have won the game.
"If it had gone in, it would have been a great play," said Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV coach. "If (James') shot had gone in, we'd all be celebrating."
James finished with 13 points, making 9 of 10 free throws.
Paddio, who was guarded by Chievous much of the game, scored 17 points, slightly below his average, making just 6 of 21 shots. Basnight added 14.
Chievous has struggled much of the season. Earlier, he was benched for a full game, and didn't start in four others.
But in the six games before Saturday, he averaged 28.7 points. Against UNLV, he had 26, making 11 of 16 shots. Tarkanian said UNLV had only one player capable of guarding Chievous, a 6-foot 7-inch swingman. That player was Stacey Augmon, who sat out part of the first half with foul trouble. Even with Augmon guarding Chievous, the Rebels didn't have great success stopping Chievous' baseline drives.
"Chievous is just a great player," Tarkanian said.
Despite trailing by 12 at halftime, UNLV came back, finally taking a 61-59 lead on a three-point shot by Keith James with about 11 minutes to play.
The Rebels stretched that lead to as many as three as the lead went back and forth the rest of the game.
But Coward gave Missouri its final lead, and UNLV failed to score on its last possession.
Proof of the trepidation Thomas and Mack can inspire came during the pregame introductions. After his team was introduced, Stewart took his team off the court, back toward the lockers, to keep them from being affected by UNLV's roaring crowd during the introduction of the Rebel players.
That introduction, conducted in a darkened arena and punctuated by the boom of indoor fireworks, is one of the most intimidating in college basketball.
The introduction over, Missouri returned to the court and ran away with the first half. The Tigers outshot UNLV, 62% to 31% in the first half, and what was more amazing, beat them at their own running game.
As it turned out, it was UNLV, not Missouri, that was affected by the big-game atmosphere.
"We didn't play good defense in the first half," Tarkanian said. "We were a little in awe of the situation."