TUCSON -- When he learned last Sunday that he would have to play against Nevada-Las Vegas in the opening round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament's West Regional, Kevin Kearney, Montana's star forward, spent a restless night.
"I had problems picturing us warming up on one side of the court and UNLV on the other end," he said. "But our coach, Stew Morrill, kept reminding us that they're only human."
Well, not quite human as basketball players, unless you measure Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels against the Portland Trail Blazers.
No. 1-ranked UNLV stretched its unbeaten streak to 42 straight, including a 31-0 mark this season, in routing the Grizzlies, 99-65, before a sellout crowd of 12,954 at McKale Center last night.
Montana (23-8), the Big Sky champion, made a game of it for the first six minutes before the Rebels, led by potential National Basketball Association lottery picks Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, put their offense in high gear.
In a matter of minutes, it became "a grizzly affair." See Johnson dunk off a lob pass. Watch Greg Anthony make a three-pointer. Catch Augmon floating effortlessly for layups. The three seniors combined for 63 points, with Johnson leading the way with 23. The only thing missing was UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian gnawing on his familiar towel.
Tarkanian, who contended the NCAA stacked the draw against his defending champions, may have more genuine concern tomorrow afternoon when his Rebels face Georgetown and close friend John Thompson, who has won the previous five meetings with UNLV. The Hoyas, who, at least, have the size to match UNLV, advanced to the second round by beating Vanderbilt, 70-60.
After the rout by UNLV, Kearney summed up the feeling for his teammates when he said, "We tried to execute and compete but they just had us outmanned at every position."
Tarkanian managed to find something negative to say about his team's performance. "We didn't execute our fast break in the first half," he said. "We were trying to get too many one-handed dunks on fast breaks and Montana was beating us off the dribble. But we did get better in the second half."
Amazingly, the Grizzlies shot 56 percent from the field in the first half and still trailed by 48-32. Augmon already had totaled 16 points and five rebounds.
The second half was less than two minutes old when Montana was forced to call time. The scoreboard told it all: 55-34.
Still, a cautious Tarkanian stuck with his starters. With a 22-point lead he was on his feet, exhorting his players to tighten their defense.
The Grizzlies, to their credit, kept hustling and cut the deficit to 61-43 with 15 minutes left.
The only real surprise left was that Johnson was still on the floor with eight minutes left and UNLV ahead, 81-55. Was there anything left to prove? But the Rebels ran off 11 more points before Tarkanian saw fit to clear his bench.