Kruger plays perfect hand as reserves answer call

Six minutes, 17 seconds.

It is why Lon Kruger makes a boatload of money to coach college basketball and most everyone else doesn’t.

It doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes, you find yourself down 12 with a little more than 14 minutes left in a game against a team that is having its way with you at both ends, choose to go even smaller than you already are, which is small by most Division I-A standards, and you’re down 20 in a blink.

Sometimes, though, the coach plays a perfect hand.

Kruger did so Wednesday night, and because of it, UNLV beat UNR for a fourth straight season, sending the Wolf Pack home 88-75 losers and wondering where in the world someone named Chopper Jones came from.

It’s what happens when a coach makes all the correct moves at the ideal time in an early-season game, when rotations aren’t set and the deeper bench can turn momentum quickly.

If the Rebels are going to contend for a Mountain West Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth, names such as Jasper and Stanback and Willis must direct them. But in a mid-November game against an in-state rival, it was Hawkins and Marshall and Bellfield and, yes, Chopper who saved UNLV.

The Rebels during that 6:17 span turned a 54-42 deficit into a 65-58 lead because players expected to offer small to average roles this season took over the game.

“Our first group looked a little fatigued,” freshman guard Justin Hawkins said. “We just wanted to come in and pick up the intensity. It’s early in the season. We’re trying to find our identity. We were going to leave everything on the floor and exhaust ourselves until (the starters) came back in.”

Fatigued. Sending a message for shoddy play. Whatever the reason Kruger, during a timeout with 14:36 left, decided to sit three starters and insert into the lineup two freshmen and a walk-on senior, it worked far better than anyone could have imagined.

Kruger afterward spoke about how Hawkins and fellow freshman Anthony Marshall have played a ton of basketball in their lives, how they were well coached in high school and competed at high levels in the summers. All true.

But there is nothing like your first taste of Division I intensity in front of a large crowd, and with apologies to Pittsburg State, the atmosphere on Saturday was nothing like what 13,113 at the Thomas & Mack Center offered in this one.

There is nothing like having to generate a run that ultimately could hand your team a win as the cheering grows louder and possessions become more precious. Hawkins and Marshall and Steve “Chopper” Jones did that, while Bellfield (career-high 22 points) was by far UNLV’s best player all evening.

In January, I’m not sure Jones plays 20 minutes and makes a huge 3-pointer with 12:12 remaining to pull UNLV within a point. I’m not sure he is asked to defend the opposing team’s best player (Luke Babbitt) for such a significant stretch.

Jones did Wednesday.

I’m not sure when conference play arrives, Hawkins and Marshall on most nights combine for 19 points, 10 rebounds and four steals in 45 minutes.

They did Wednesday.

If young players and one whose most important function over a season might be to offer energy during practice can offer numbers for a terrific 6:17 stretch, their confidence can soar. That can’t help but make UNLV a better team.

Derrick Jasper and Chace Stanback and Tre’Von Willis are going to win UNLV many games this season.

Sometimes, others need to be the difference to also grow as players.

“The (starters) weren’t getting results, so we went with the second group,” Kruger said. “They came in and kept attacking. … (Bellfield) was great all night, and our depth was certainly a factor. Young guys like (Hawkins and Marshall) like to compete.

“We needed fresher people at the time we (made the switch). Had those who went in stayed fresher, we would have kept them in longer.”

Maybe that was it. Maybe he wanted to send an early-season message to those who will carry much of the load.

It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, a coach plays a hand everyone in the building questions and it turns out to be perfect.

Then you realize why he’s the one making decisions.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on “The Sports Scribes” on KDWN-AM (720) and

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