CHICAGO — UNLV players made no secret of the fact that they couldn’t wait to get another shot at Illinois, the team that embarrassed them in the NCAA Tournament only nine months ago.
And thanks to some tenacious switching man-to-man defense and the strong inside play of Mike Moser (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Quintrell Thomas (13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals), the Rebels (11-2) made the most of that opportunity Saturday afternoon at the United Center, handing the 19th-ranked Fighting Illini (10-1) their first loss of the season in convincing fashion, 64-48.
UNLV held Illinois to just 25.4 percent shooting from the floor (16 of 63) and also did an excellent job on the boards, outrebounding the bigger Illini, 44-40.
“Our guys need to be really proud of the energy and the effort that they played with,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “We were very concerned about Illinois. Watching the NCAA Tournament tape (a 73-62 win by the Illini) from last year, we as a staff all decided that Illinois is even better this year.”
One of the reasons for that assessment Rice said was because of the play of 7-foot-1 sophomore center Meyers Leonard, the Big Ten Conference’s co-Player of the Week on Dec. 5.
“He’s become a (NBA) lottery-pick type of inside player,” Rice said.
But UNLV continually frustrated Leonard with double-teams in the post and held him to just seven points, well below his average of 13.4 entering the game.
“We wanted to start the game doubling the post,” Rice said. “We didn’t want Leonard to get easy looks early. We knew that he was still capable of hurting us and beating us. We knew we’d give him some open shots. But we worked very hard the last several days on our rotation.”
UNLV’s defense made up for a so-so offensive performance. The Rebels, who used a 14-2 run to end the half to take a 33-22 halftime lead and led by as many as 16 points (50-34) midway through the second half, overcame 18 turnovers and just two points from leading scorer Chace Stanback to win easily.
“Today was a gut-check,” Rice said. “That’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebel swagger today … finding a way to win on the road.”
“It felt really good to get this one,” Moser, who had his 10th double-double of the season, said. “(Quintrell) was just cooking tonight. It was real special for him.”
The Rebels have little time to enjoy this one. UNLV returns to action on Monday night when it hosts Louisiana-Monroe at the Thomas & Mack Center at 7 p.m.