Tiny crack appears in UNLV's armor

March 18, 1991|By Andrew Bagnato | Andrew Bagnato,Chicago Tribune

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The NCAA tournament suddenly became interesting yesterday.

If a Georgetown team that sneaked into the tourney through the back door can take defending national champion Nevada-Las Vegas down to the last two minutes, well, there's hope for the Arizonas, the Seton Halls and the Ohio States of the world.

The Hoyas might have felt bad about losing to the top-ranked Runnin' Rebels 62-54 in the West Regional, but 15 other basketball teams watched with glee.

"I do think it's possible for somebody to beat them," Georgetown coach John Thompson said. "In a five- or seven-game series, Vegas would run away from the field. In a one-game situation, to think that any team is invincible is ridiculous."

The odds are still overwhelming that Vegas will win, and win with ease. But Thompson's opinion was seconded by UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who at no time felt comfortable enough to assume the arms-behind-the-head posture he often used as his team romped to an undefeated regular season.

"I kept telling myself this is going to be one of those days when you look back and say, 'What happened there?' " he said.

What happened was the Rebels' 43rd consecutive victory, but it didn't come as easily as most of its predecessors. The Rebels seemed primed for a rout when they blew out to a 26-11 lead with only 12 minutes gone. But the Hoyas called a timeout, and then trimmed the deficit to 29-19 at the half.

UNLV pushed back to a 44-29 lead with 13 minutes left, but again the Hoyas stayed with them, slicing the lead to 46-42 with eight minutes left.

The Hoyas even made a charge without Alonzo Mourning, who led everyone with 11 rebounds but fouled out and scored only seven points. His twin tower, Dikembe Mutombo, scored 16 points and spiked three shots.

With Mutombo glowering under the net, the Rebels were taking bad shots and missing them. It appeared that the shadow of a doubt was beginning to slip inside UNLV's sense of superiority. Georgetown believed it could win, and so did many in a charged-up McKale Center crowd.

The rest of the NCAA field has to have at least a glimmer of hope.

"I think the media has built them up to be superhumans," Mourning said. "Every time you see the word 'UNLV' in the paper, you think they're like Batman and Robin."

As it turned out, they were more like the Flash. With 6:50 to go, Anderson Hunt hit a three-pointer from the right wing to make it 49-42, UNLV. Then Hunt broke loose on a long rebound and jammed for a 51-42 lead. Stacy Augmon copied, and Vegas was back on top by 13.

Georgetown closed the gap to five points with 2:30 left, but the Rebels wouldn't let them come any closer.

The Hoyas didn't win, but they managed to delay the usual Rebel showboating, which culminated in a technical foul on Johnson for taunting Mourning after he fouled out.

"I kind of knew it was coming," said Johnson, the game's high scorer with 20 points.

But the fact that UNLV didn't unveil that ugly part of its repertoire until so late had to make people wonder. The Rebels have the toughest road to Indianapolis, with surprising Utah waiting and then Seton Hall or Arizona.

None of those teams have the shot-blocking strength of the Hoyas.

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