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Rebels fall short against Davidson, go oh-for-Maui event

Updated December 3, 2020 - 5:35 am

ASHEVILLE, N.C.

There was a possession late in the first half of the UNLV-Davidson basketball game Wednesday night when the Rebels did this out of their motion offense: Marvin Coleman initiated by passing to Bryce Hamilton on the left wing as David Jenkins Jr. slid to the corner.

Hamilton beat his man off a hard dribble, drew help defense and threw a cross-court skip pass to a wide open Caleb Grill, whose 3-pointer was good.

Such successful possessions were few and far between the last three days. Like, really far.

UNLV went winless for the Maui Invitational, losing the seventh-place game to the Wildcats 77-73 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.

“The players really wanted to win and were highly disappointed in that locker room,” said Rebels coach T.J. Otzelberger, whose team fell to 0-4. “I know we’re getting better. I feel with each night out, there has been improvement. We’ve minimized some of the mistakes that caused us challenges each game.

“When we can put together 40 minutes with the tremendous sense of urgency we had down the stretch of that game, I know we’re going to be a really good team.”

Two bright spots

The jumper from Grill in that first-half possession is the the sort of shot Otzelberger would want his team taking each trip down the court. It’s how he wants to play. Why he starts four guards. Why of the 186 shots the Rebels had attempted through three games before Wednesday, more than half were 3s.

They probably should have shot more than 32 against Davidson, given UNLV missed five layups in the first half alone. Struggle doesn’t begin to describe how bad things have been offensively at times to begin the season. The Rebels through four losses are shooting 39 percent from the field, including 34 percent from 3.

There were a few good signs Wednesday. Jenkins seemed to play with that chip on his shoulder Otzelberger mentioned Tuesday night and had by far his best game, scoring 18 on 6-of-13 shooting; Hamilton had a game-high 27 in making 9-of-17 shots.

“For us, even though we’re going to hang our hat on the defensive end of the floor, (Jenkins and Hamilton), when they have it going, command a lot of attention from the opposing defense,” Otzelberger said. “And that helps free things up for other guys.”

North Carolina was somewhat of a mirage for UNLV in its Maui opener. Short of an NCAA Tournament appearance against another such Power Five opponent, the Rebels won’t see that level of size and length again this season.

But they will meet varying levels of it. Utah State has the Mountain West’s best post player in Neemias Queta. San Diego State is always long and athletic in spots. Boise State will have some length.

So if this is who the Rebels are — double inside when clearly outsized, gimmick things up on the defensive end by switching from zone to man — they absolutely must make shots.

Efficiency is everything for a team like UNLV. It’s not feasting off a bunch of easy baskets. The Rebels are’t going to run away from anyone with second-chance points.

Worth the trip

But the trip was certainly worth it. The Rebels learned what elite was against the Tar Heels, put together 32 or so solid minutes against a good Southeastern Conference school in Alabama and, after playing Davidson, realize they’ll need to defend cuts far better when it’s time to face Air Force in conference.

What you had this week was lessons learned for a team with eight new faces and others who sat out last season. But as much as the experience should benefit in time, nothing changed about who the Rebels are and how they play.

They have to shoot well to stand a chance.

“I think, for us, just getting in a rhythm playing together,” Grill said following the loss to Alabama. “I think once we all get working together, we’re going to be really successful down the stretch.”

Some teams can get away with bad offensive nights and still beat better or similar people. UNLV isn’t one.

Nothing in this charming North Carolina town told them different.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. 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.

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