A loss in their last regular-season game and a recent newspaper article questioning J.R. Rider's work in summer school to get eligible to play this season were no help to Utah State Friday night in its Big West Tournament opener.

Like all the other 23 times they've played the Runnin' Rebels, the Aggies came up empty.This time was uglier than most, despite a hustling, diving effort by several Utah State players. UNLV went from six behind to 12 ahead during a nine-minute stretch of the middle first half when Aggie Jay Goodman got into foul trouble, and the Rebs kept right on running to a 104-86 win that ended the USU careers of Aggie coach Kohn Smith, his assistants, and seniors Goodman, Gary Patterson, Todd Gentry and Carlito DaSilva.

UNLV advanced to tonight's semifinal and was to play the winner of Friday's late Long Beach-Fullerton matchup. The Aggies came home early to reorganize for their respective futures.

Smith was told Jan. 28 his contract would not be renewed but finished out the season as a lame duck.

"I'm going to be fine. Nobody's going to bury me," Smith declared following the 18-point loss. "I just want to be their biggest fan," he said of the Aggie players who will remain at the school under a new coaching regime for next season.

Smith, who has been through a lot these last 21/2 months, could appreciate fully what UNLV did to his team. "I'm sure that's been very difficult for them," he said, crediting UNLV coach Rollie Massimino for getting his team tournament-ready in a trying week.

"You hate distractions," Smith said. He hasn't always been so charitable toward UNLV; he was one of the first Big West coaches to openly criticize the big cars that UNLV players drove in the Jerry Tarkanian era.

"I live for the game," said Rider, who finished with 35 points and 13 rebounds in what Smith called a "fantastic" performance. "After the last couple days," said Rider, "I've just had a positive adrenaline going."

Rider got cramps in both legs. Somebody asked him if it was from making so many jump shots against the Aggies. He allowed as how it could have been.

It was the highest Big West Tournament scoring total in UNLV history.

The Aggies tried hard. They did. Nate Wickizer topped his career high by four points with 22 on 10-for-17 shooting, and he ripped down 10 rebounds and had four blocked shots.

Goodman, despite his fouls and a poor shooting night (11 points) caused by UNLV guards that Smith said are among the best defenders in the country, set a tournament record and a career high with 13 assists. He managed to finish out the game with only four fouls, but Smith said the foul trouble kept the Aggies from using him to trap the Rebels. "Jay is so important to us," said Smith. "It kinda broke our momentum." The Aggies were up 16-12 when Goodman picked up his third.

Patterson also hustled, matching his career high with 15 points, and he had three steals and six rebounds.

USU, which had played UNLV to nine- and eight-point games during the regular season, had stayed very close to the Rebels until the second half those times. Friday, it was the opposite. UNLV pulled ahead by as many as 15 near the end of the first half and stayed about 18 ahead the second half. They had a 23-point margin at 95-72, but it went down to 17 again, then finsihed at 18.

Nate Wickizer kept the Aggies close as Rider was heating up, scoring two 12-foot turnaround jumpers within 20 seconds of each other, but when Wickizer was called for traveling at 4:08 of the first half, Rider took advantage for a powerful left-handed layin through traffic that put UNLV up by seven, 35-28. Boney swiped the ball from Nate Wickizer, and Gray put home a three-pointer followed by a layin from Boney after a missed Wickizer shot. Suddenly the lead was 40-28 with 3:01 left in the half.

A three-point play from Nate Wickizer and a free throw from Junsie Cotten helped, but a Rider corkscrew from 18 feet started the Rebels on another run, and they soon had it up to 46-32.

The first half ended 49-36 for UNLV, with Rider getting 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting. Boney had 14. Nate Wickizer led the Aggies with 11, 5-for-8 from the field, and his five rebounds tied Rider for the lead.

The big problems for USU in the half were Goodman's fouls and 13 turnovers, five by Nate Wickizer. They finished with 19 turnovers to 17 by the Rebels with a better second half.