LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- UNLV's Oscar Bellfield saw Louisville's Samarado Samuels step out to guard him and figured the only way to get it over the 6-foot-9 center was to flip it up in the air and let the laws of physics go to work.
"I wanted to go right [and] the big man came at me," Bellfield said. "I had to duck under him and get it high off the board. I haven't hit a last-second shot since middle school."
Bellfield is all grown up now, and so is his streaking team. Bellfield's go-ahead layup with 16 seconds remaining lifted UNLV to a stunning 56-55 win over reeling No. 18 Louisville on Wednesday.
"He made a tough shot," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger. "To win the battle in a tough environment is pretty darn good. They have a right to feel good about themselves."
Louisville (8-3) had one more chance, but Terrence Williams missed a layup with three seconds remaining and UNLV's Joe Darger grabbed the rebound to hold on.
Rene Rougeau led the the Runnin' Rebels with 17 points and seven rebounds and Tre'Von Willis added 16 points as UNLV (12-2) won its seventh straight despite playing without senior guard Wink Adams, who was sidelined with an abdominal strain.
Preston Knowles paced the Louisville with 11 points and Samuels and Earl Clark both had 10 points and seven boards but Louisville shot just 30 percent from the floor to lose for the second time in three games.
"That was a tough way to bring in the New Year," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Our guys played their hearts out at the end, but Las Vegas just made the last play."
The Runnin' Rebels made plenty along the way too, though it looked like it might not be enough when Louisville rallied from a 15-point deficit and took a 55-53 lead on a pair of free throws by Williams with 1:44 to go.
Willis hit a free throw to bring UNLV back within one with 1:17 to play and then forced Louisville's Andre McGee into a turnover.
Bellfield got the ball and a pick just past halfcourt, matching him up with the bigger -- but slower -- Samuels. The 6-2 Bellfield hesitated for just a moment then sliced to the basket before laying it in.
The Cardinals hustled to midcourt and called timeout and Louisville drew up a play for Williams. The senior caught the ball at the top of the key and tried to drive to his right. He got to the rim but his layup attempt missed badly.
"It was exactly what we wanted," Pitino said. "I thought [Williams] got fouled but that's a judgment call."
Louisville seemed to be so shocked by the miss nobody bothered to foul Darger as time ran out and the UNLV bench stormed onto the court at Freedom Hall in celebration.
Adams was among the gleeful, though UNLV hardly needed its senior leader thanks to a suffocating defense that collapsed on Samuels and frustrated the Cardinals all night.
"I'm sure a lot of people counted us out because we didn't have Wink," Bellfield said. "We used it as motivation. I was surprised how lackadasical [Louisville] was offensively and their crowd wasn't into it."
The Runnin' Rebels blitzed Louisville early, racing to the lead as the Cardinals seemed mystified by UNLV's dribble-drive offense and frenetic man-to-man defense.
The Cardinals missed their first 11 shots, and even their first make was dubious thanks to a generous goaltending call on UNLV. By the time Louisville finally put the ball through the cylinder on a 3-pointer by Knowles, they trailed 22-10.
"We played just terrible the first 10 minutes," said Clark. "You can't do that against a good team, you can't dig a hole like that."
UNLV kept the lead around double-digits until midway through the second half, when Louisville's defense clamped down and held the Runnin' Rebels without a field goal for nine minutes.
The Cardinals took their first lead at 48-47 on a pair of free throws by Williams with 4:31 left, but Willis ended UNLV's dry spell with a 3-pointer a minute later to put the Runnin' Rebels up 51-50.
Rougeau hit a layup to push the lead to 53-50 before McGee hit a 3-pointer for Louisville to tie it with 2:03 remaining, eventually leading to Bellfield's heroics.
The loss sends the Cardinals reeling into their annual showdown with archrival Kentucky and continues their free fall that started with an upset by Western Kentucky four weeks ago. Louisville was ranked No. 3 in November but heads into the New Year searching for answers.
"We've lost three games now and we've got the meat of our schedule coming up in a very tough conference," Pitino said. "Our backs are to the wall and we've got to come out fighting."