TCU proved it could play with anyone in the Mountain West Conference, coach Jim Christian said, after rallying from a 12-point deficit in regulation to force double overtime at Colorado State on Saturday.
That claim will be put to the test against No. 14 UNLV (16-3, 0-1 MWC) at 9:30 tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Christian felt that way, despite the Horned Frogs' eventual 95-89 loss, because of how poorly TCU played defense in the first half, allowing the Rams uncontested baskets in the paint with a textbook drive-and-dish game plan that left its big men open for layups and dunks.
Rams forward Will Bell, who entered the game averaging 8.1 points per game, led with 23 points, mostly coming from point-blank range.
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"We're disappointed in how we opened the game," Christian said. "We don't think we played for 40 minutes and still had a chance to win the game."
It's not that TCU (10-6, 0-1 MWC) was entirely outplayed in the first half. At most, the Frogs trailed by seven, despite Colorado State shooting nearly 73 percent in the opening half. That was mainly because of soft interior defense by TCU that allowed for numerous layups.
"We just need to buckle down on defense and keep guys out of the paint," TCU guard Hank Thorns said. "I think we need a [late 1980s] Detroit Pistons-type attitude; we can't come out with smiles. We need to come out with a chip on our shoulder and take everything personal."
Taking tonight's game personally won't be hard for Thorns, who grew up in Las Vegas and played at Valley High School. He'll have over 100 friends and family attending tonight's game.
"We need to execute our game plan," he said. "Colorado State came in with a game plan, they executed it, and never shied away from it. And I think UNLV is going to do the same thing."
Thorns evoked the old Piston teams for their physical, bruising defense that led to back-to-back titles.
The Frogs tightened their defense at the end of regulation against the Rams and scored the last 11 points in the final 2:47 to force the first overtime.
"We kept them from scoring and came back in two minutes, so it definitely showed how tough we are and how much heart we have, but we didn't get the 'W' so we can't be happy," Thorns said. "When teams have that type of attitude, that opponents aren't going to score on them, it's a different mind-set."