UNLV upsets No. 19 Illinois in Chicago

It seemed every time Illinois tried to dribble or drive to the basket Saturday, there was a UNLV defender in the way.

The 19th-ranked Illini struggled to get open shots, and when they did have a good look, it usually didn’t fall.

UNLV’s aggressive, switching defense threw the Illini off from the outset and they never recovered in losing for the first time this season, 64-48 at the United Center.

”I thought we picked it up a little in the second half, but obviously we couldn’t get the ball in the hoop, whether it was two-pointers, three-pointers or free throws,” coach Bruce Weber said.

The Illini made just 16 of 63 field goal attempts (25.4 percent), going 7 of 25 on three-pointers, and they also missed half of their 18 free throws.

UNLV (11-2), which beat then-No. 1 North Carolina earlier this season, double-teamed Illinois center Meyers Leonard early, then backed off. But whoever had the ball during the game, the Runnin’ Rebels were there to contend a shot or a dribble.

”We started the game double-teaming him, bringing the trap every time he touched the ball, and that was probably why they struggled so early,” said UNLV’s Mike Moser, who led the Runnin’ Rebels with 17 points.

”They didn’t have him to really create anything for them because it’s hard to create something with two guys on you.”

Weber said his young 7-foot-1 center, who missed five of his six free throw attempts, didn’t react after UNLV took the post trap off.

”I think Meyers was thinking about it too much instead of playing. A couple of times he could have gone right to his hook. He’s a young guy and he is learning,” Weber said.

The Runnin’ Rebels were quicker to the ball most of the evening and also blocked nine shots.

”They are athletic, they are long, they have versatile guys,” Weber said. ”They’ve played a lot of different ways. … They switched things and we didn’t react to that. That’s my job to do a better job preparing.”

UNLV got a bit of revenge for a 73-62 loss to the Illini in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, but that wasn’t really much of a factor, first-year coach Dave Rice said. What was really bugging UNLV was a loss a week ago at Wisconsin.

”I was asked all week about the NCAA tournament game last year and I wasn’t here, but I didn’t feel like that was a big part of the motivation,” Rice said. ”I think the bigger thing was the fact our guys were really frustrated with our effort last week. We didn’t bring energy. We didn’t execute. … We were ready today.”

Quintrell Thomas added 13 points for UNLV, which won despite getting only two points from leading scorer Chace Stanback. The Runnin’ Rebels built a 33-22 halftime lead by closing with a 14-2 run.

In the opening 20 minutes, Illinois had nine turnovers and made just 8 of 28 field goal attempts, including 3 of 11 on three-pointers as it disappointed a large orange-clad throng of fans.

”They came out swinging and we didn’t punch back. They were definitely the aggressor from the tip and they kept it going pretty much throughout the game,” said Illini guard Sam Maniscalco, who shot 1 for 10, including 1 for 7 on threes.

”You can’t dig yourself a hole like that, especially against an opponent of that caliber that has that kind of scoring punch and athleticism.”

The Illini missed eight of their first nine attempts to start the second half, but D.J. Richardson’s three-pointer helped them Illini get within eight.

Richardson shot 5 of 8 on threes and finished with 19 points, the lone bright spot for the Illini offense.

Richardson hit his fourth three of the second half to get the Illini within 11 with 6:14 remaining. Illinois whittled it to eight with 4:24 to go on a basket by Leonard. But Thomas had a dunk with 2:25 remaining to end a seven-minute field goal drought for UNLV and the Runnin’ Rebels regained control.

Illinois, which is 32-11 at the United Center, has now lost three straight and five of six on the Chicago Bulls’ home floor.

”My third year up here and I’m 0-3,” Richardson said. ”It’s tough a third time coming up here and laying an egg.”