LAS VEGAS -- It was a play in the second half Sunday afternoon that did not appear in the box score of top-seeded Nevada-Las Vegas' tense, 62-54 victory over Georgetown in the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association West Regional in Tucson, Ariz.
UNLV's Larry Johnson had just completed a nine-point run to give the Runnin' Rebels a 44-29 cushion with 16 minutes left. As the muscular 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward ran back on defense, he did not bother to take a detour around the Hoyas' Brian Kelly, who had decked Rebels guard Greg Anthony in the first half.
Displaying the power of a National Football League fullback, Johnson flattened Kelly. No foul was called, but the message Johnson delivered to Georgetown was perfectly clear: Don't mess with my guys or you'll answer to me.
Although fellow All-American forward Stacey Augmon often gets equal billing, it is Johnson from whom the Runnin' Rebels take their cues. He is also the man Utah coach Rick Majerus must make his defense stop when the Utes face UNLV in the West semifinals at Seattle's Skydome tomorrow night.
It was Johnson who stepped forward Sunday, when the Rebels' explosive offense suddenly sputtered. The Hoyas' twin towers, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, had frustrated his inside power moves, limiting him to four shots in the first half.
Encouraged by coach Jerry Tarkanian to take more shots, Johnson took his game outside and began hitting jump shots or beating his defender off the dribble. He finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and also drew a technical for waving goodbye to Mourning after the Hoyas' power forward fouled out in the closing minutes.
It added up to a 43rd straight victory for the Rebels, who have gone 32-0 in defense of their NCAA title. Though he has a talented starting five, Tarkanian credits Johnson for his leadership qualities.
"Everything on this team starts with Larry," Tarkanian said. "The closeness on this team comes from his example on and off the court. If anything, he's too unselfish. A player like Larry Johnson doesn't come along often in a coaching career, maybe never."
Added shooting guard Anderson Hunt: "Larry is very underrated. People only talk about his scoring and rebounding. They don't talk about his passing ability or defense. Everybody on this team is unselfish. But Larry is our go-to guy, and sometimes we have to prod him to look for his own shot."
Johnson could have turned professional rather than spend another season under the constant scrutiny of the NCAA investigators and the media for UNLV's past indiscretions.
Don Nelson, the Golden State Warriors coach and general manager, even questioned Johnson's wisdom in spurning the 1990 National Basketball Association draft, a move that probably cost the forward $3 million.
"I think there is a time when a guy is just right to come out, when everything is in place -- the money and the maturity," said Nelson. "Larry had already won an NCAA title. It's hard to believe he didn't come out, but it was his call."
Johnson said the distractions surrounding the team only strengthened the resolve of the players to repeat as champions.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Johnson said. "If you changed some of that stuff off the court, how do you know we'd have the unity we have now when we step on the floor?
"By staying in school, I improved my whole perimeter game," he said.
"Besides, I enjoy going to college, and I play basketball because I like it. You're the big man on campus, and everyone knows you. They point you out in class, and it's easier to meet all the good-looking coeds," he said, laughing.
The product of a neighborhood in Dallas he calls "the toughest part of town you ever saw," Johnson took a circuitous route to Las Vegas.
"I used to run the streets," he said, "making my mom cry when she had to pick me up at the police station. Sports kept me out of big trouble."
Because of academic problems, he first stopped at Odessa (Texas) Junior College and was heavily recruited by a number of Texas colleges before settling on UNLV.
It proved a perfect marriage between a gifted athlete and a team that allows a great deal of freedom to its players. Four more victories and Johnson will have completed his mission. And the NBA lottery will loom bigger than ever.
Larry Johnson's statistics at UNLV
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Avg .. .. .. Avg.
Year .. G.. FG-FGA .. FT-FTA .. Reb.. Ast.. Pts.
1989-90 40.. 304-487.. 201-262.. 11.4.. 84.. 20.6
1990-91 32.. 280-423.. 154-186.. 10.9.. 101.. 22.8
Totals. 72.. 584-910.. 355-448.. 11.2.. 185.. 21.7