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UNLV basketball opens 2020 with best effort of season

Updated January 2, 2020 - 8:41 am

The calendar turns to January and a new year arrives, a time of remembrance for what came before and those resolutions we desire to make.

For one night, in the most impressive and surprising of ways, UNLV’s basketball team put the previous two months behind it and looked nothing like what we have seen under first-year head coach T. J. Otzelberger.

That’s a good thing for UNLV, because for much of 40 minutes Wednesday night, the Rebels were great.

They bounced a defending Mountain West co-champion and unanimous preseason favorite to repeat right out of the Thomas & Mack Center, beating Utah State 70-53 before an announced New Year’s night crowd of 7,571.

Say this for those 3,000 or so who were actually in the house: It has been a minute, a very long one, since UNLV’s home arena produced such a passionate response.

It was loud, and Otzelberger’s side deserved every last shriek.

Where such a performance came from for a team that entered 6-8 and whose best win before was in overtime against a seriously flawed Fresno State is anyone’s guess, but one factor was obvious from the tip.

For a roster that Otzelberger has publicly criticized following a handful of games for its lack of effort and intensity and impulse to win, the Rebels wanted this victory far more than the favored Aggies.

More, more, more

UNLV played harder, was more physical, more aware, more everything.

The Aggies were without star center Neemias Queta (knee), and yet it wouldn’t have mattered.

Not on this night.

“It was easy to see who was more desperate to win,” Aggies coach Craig Smith said. “That was very clear. That’s disappointing, but they outworked us, they out-coached us, they out-toughed us and they outdid us in every way, shape and form. We were served a piece of humble pie tonight.

“They’re definitely playing much better than they did earlier in the year, so give them credit. At the same time, we were just mindless out there. I was wondering if we were going to get to 50 (points).”

Win will be noticed

That the Rebels whipped Utah State will raise eyes across the conference, but just as notable as a 17-point margin was how UNLV accomplished it.

You’re going to be in most every league game by defending as the Rebels did, limiting a side that ranks 33rd nationally in adjusted offense to just 32.7 shooting, including 2-of-19 on 3-pointers.

They took Smith’s team out of near everything it wanted to run, forcing the Aggies into bad shots some trips and rushed ones others and a disjointed pace not usually seen from a team that has been so good the past few years.

Sam Merrill is the league’s reigning player of the year and he was made to look just as lost as his teammates, finishing with 10 points on 2-of-6 shooting while missing all four of his attempts from 3.

The Rebels traded off guarding Merrill, forcing him off intended spots, making it difficult for him to create off ball screens, stretching out his catches, just doing those physical things that makes even an elite scorer uncomfortable.

Most of the above comes from the effort Otzelberger has so fervently wanted from the players, and they responded.

A shining effort

Mbacke Diong limped off in the first half with injury, returned a short time later and the junior forward proceeded to produce 10 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in 28 minutes.

Bryce Hamilton played by far his best game at UNLV, the sophomore wing scoring 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

On and on down a stat sheet, the Rebels shined.

‘Not a one-time deal’

“I feel like we have been here before,” Otzelberger said. “Talking about playing with tremendous focus and effort … Tonight is what that needs to look like, and that’s Runnin’ Rebel basketball. That’s my job to work tirelessly to make sure that’s what it becomes from this point forward.

“We’ve had some challenging losses early in the season, and when young people encounter some adversity, doubt starts to creep in. Hopefully, they can bottle this up. This is not a one-time deal. This is who we are, and now we have to get back to work.”

The part about it being a one-time deal or not will be proven over the next few months.

But for one night, as the calendar turned to a new year, remembrance for what came before wasn’t at all present.

If playing this way was any sort of resolution for UNLV, consider it a terrific first impression.

More Rebels: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Rebels

Contact columnist Ed Graney 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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