Graney: UNLV’s return to defensive approach takes out UNR
UNLV’s basketball team is suddenly defending again, which was good enough to beat rival UNR 68-62 on Saturday night.
They earned a 10-0 record to begin the season at the defensive end of a basketball court, all confident and pesky and aggressive.
That’s where UNLV returned Saturday night. Where it discovered much-needed success.
The Rebels, before the season’s largest gathering at the Thomas & Mack Center (8,734), clamped down late and took out rival UNR 68-62.
Nine players gained minutes for the Rebels.
Most made some level of contribution.
“It’s good to sit here and feel like this again,” said Rebels coach Kevin Kruger, whose team won its second straight. “We stuck our chests out a little bit and had that pride and swagger that good things are going to happen. You go out and play as hard as you can, and I thought the guys did that.”
They made stops down the stretch like in that season-opening string of win after win. Great communication. Great anticipation.
It was the third straight win against UNR dating to last season, the Rebels trying to return to a time when it’s not just the team up north flirting with postseason play.
UNLV hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013; UNR has gone three times since then, including a Sweet 16 trip in 2018.
But the Rebels (14-7, 3-6 Mountain West) were better on this particular night, holding UNR (16-6, 6-3) to 36 percent shooting. They also forced 19 turnovers from a team that, well, doesn’t turn the ball over.
“It feels good to kind of stack wins,” said UNLV guard EJ Harkless.
A team effort, this.
Consider some of those who played a major part:
Harkless: He for some reason ran through a pregame layup line wearing hand warmers. It didn’t help his overall shooting numbers — Harkless finished 5 of 15 — but he carried the Rebels down the stretch to finish with 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
He also drew a key charge late that helped seal the victory.
Justin Webster: It was six minutes into the second half when the senior guard again found himself alone in the corner. And again launched a 3-pointer. And again made it.
It was about this time that UNR coach Steve Alford looked to one of his assistants in disbelief, wondering how Webster continued to be so open.
He would score a season-high 17 points while making 5 of 8 3s.
“Just moving and getting out in transition and finding ways I could make open shots,” Webster said.
There was sophomore guard Shane Nowell continuing to earn playing time and scoring eight points; there was sophomore guard Keshon Gilbert being subbed in for defense with 1:41 left in a three-point game and immediately stealing the ball.
They pushed tempo off misses and converted. They did a terrific job on UNR center Will Baker, tiring him out to the level he scored just two points in 19 minutes. Take away a forgettable 17-of-29 from the free-throw line, and Kruger’s team more the deserved its result.
A clean sweep
“When we struggled there for a couple weeks in (losing four straight and six of seven), we didn’t necessarily have bad offensive nights,” Kruger said. “Where our confidence really took a hit was at the defensive end. But when you have that confidence and swagger, you can build off that.”
Seems they have it back. We’ll see if it sticks going forward.
Earlier, in a sold-out Cox Pavilion, the Lady Rebels took care of UNR 80-57. It ran UNLV’s record to 20-2 overall and 10-0 in conference. It has won 11 straight. Just rolling.
Later that night, in front of what was the most animated home crowd of the season, the men’s team held up its end.
A clean sweep of the in-state rival.
“There’s no words you can put into how great (the atmosphere) was,” Kruger said. “How important it is. Hopefully, they all had a great time. … It had that buzz of a rivalry game. … Probably why we kept that security and confidence.”
And played defense like during that 10-0 start.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter