March 16, 2007
CHICAGO (AP) – Shades of the Shark? Maybe.
If nothing else, UNLV took a big step back toward the top.
The Runnin’ Rebels won their first NCAA tournament game in 16 years, beating Georgia Tech 67-63 Friday behind 19 points each from Michael Umeh and Wendell White.
The last time the Runnin’ Rebels won in the NCAA was under Jerry Tarkanian, who led them to the 1991 Final Four. Now under coach Lon Kruger, UNLV (29-6) has an eight-game win streak.
“Everybody knows that this was a great win for Las Vegas, for UNLV and the Mountain West Conference,” junior Curtis Terry said. “But we’re not done yet.”
Umeh hit two free throws with 23.5 seconds left to give seventh-seeded UNLV a 65-61 lead. Joel Anthony then blocked a drive by Javaris Crittenton.
Umeh hit 4-of-8 3-pointers, while White hit 8-of-12 shots and grabbed eight rebounds. He suffered bruised ribs with 1:11 left in the game but said he’ll be fine.
This wasn’t the sort of performance that would spark memories of the UNLV team that won it all in 1990 with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. Nor did anyone deliver the sort of performance that conjured images of Michael Jordan, who watched this Midwest Regional matchup from a suite.
The Runnin’ Rebels were just 19-for-60 from the field, and Georgia Tech wasn’t much better at 25-of-61.
Kevin Kruger, the coach’s son who transferred in and helped spark UNLV’s turnaround, missed all eight of his shots and finished with five points.
“I wasn’t going to quit just because I hadn’t made a shot,” he said. “I’ve watched a lot of games in the United Center growing up, but some nights, it’s not going to fall. Some nights, it is. There’s nothing I can do but get up a lot of shots tomorrow and before the game on Sunday.”
He wasn’t the only one to struggle.
Wink Adams (13 points) was just 3-of-13, but he came up with a key defensive play in the final minute, when he harassed Crittenton into a five-second violation. Crittenton, a freshman, missed his first four shots and finished with eight points.
The five-second violation ultimately led to two free throws by Gaston Essengue that made it 63-59 with 36.6 seconds left.
“I wouldn’t say it was the turning point, but I really wasn’t looking at it,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. “I don’t think anybody can pressure Javaris for five seconds in that situation. I would have no way to judge whether it was a good or bad call.”
Adams was surprised he was able to stick with Crittenton.
“I didn’t expect to stay that close to him because Javaris is a shifty player, so he’s kind of hard to stay in front of,” Adams said. “But I knew my team needed a stop, and I just stayed in front of him.”
Crittenton found Zach Peacock inside for a basket, before Umeh’s two free throws.
UNLV outrebounded Georgia Tech 44-41, and 24 of those boards were offensive.
“Rebounding is all about will,” said the Yellow Jackets’ Jeremis Smith, who grabbed 10. “You have to have the will and heart to rebound out there. As you can tell, they had a lot more than we did under the glass. Wendell and Essengue had a couple of rebounds at the end of the game that put us away.”
UNLV beat Georgia Tech in the 1990 Final Four on the way to the championship. Both programs endured down periods in the interim.
Georgia Tech reached the Final Four in 2004 but missed the postseason last year. The Yellow Jackets were 13-8 after a four-game losing streak in late January, and there was speculation that Hewitt’s job was in jeopardy.
They turned it around in the final month, though, winning seven of the final nine regular-season games before losing in double overtime to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament.
UNLV’s troubles are well-documented.
The Runnin’ Rebels beat Seton Hall in the 1991 West regional final, before the program crumbled under the weight of NCAA investigations. And they made just two NCAA appearances between now and then, losing to Tulsa in the first round in 2000.
After winning 17 games in each of Kruger’s first two seasons, the Runnin’ Rebels sprinted back into the spotlight this season and restored some of the glitter. The coach’s son gave the program a boost when he took advantage of a rule that allowed him to play immediately after transferring from Arizona State and wound up averaging 13.6 points.
The elder Kruger became the fifth coach to lead four teams to the NCAA – he’d previously won with Kansas State, Florida and Illinois.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s season came to a disappointing end.
“This is probably the worst experience ever,” freshman Thaddeus Young said. “My first NCAA, and I didn’t think it would end like this.”