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‘Big goal achieved’: UNLV advances in NIT, earns 2nd-round home game

Updated March 20, 2024 - 9:06 pm

No Kalib Boone. No Luis Rodriguez. No problem.

The UNLV men’s basketball team went across the country without two key players and had more than enough in reserve to upset second-seeded Princeton 84-77 on Wednesday in a National Invitation Tournament first-round game at Jadwin Gymnasium.

The Rebels (20-12) earned the program’s first postseason win since 2008 and reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 2017-18 campaign.

UNLV will next host Boston College (20-15) in a second-round matchup at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Thomas &Mack Center.

Rob Whaley Jr. is a major reason UNLV is moving on. The junior scored a career-high 21 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field and added nine rebounds.

“Patience,” Whaley said of the key to his breakout performance. “Just let the game come to me and take my time with it. Sometimes I get a little too ahead of myself, and my coaches let me know that. They kept trusting me and let me go at it.”

The strategy paid off. While the Tigers (24-5) had a great season and can be lethal from beyond the arc, Princeton had no answer for Whaley’s strength and athleticism in the paint.

He took full advantage.

Whaley had two big buckets inside as part of a 9-0 run midway through the second half that gave the Rebels control of the game after the Tigers cut a double-digit deficit to four.

He had plenty of help from Keylan Boone, whose twin brother Kalib was unable to play because of an ankle injury.

Keylan Boone finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds in his brother’s absence, ensuring the senior would have at least one more game to play in his career.

“It feels good,” he said. “We just got our 20th win, so that’s a huge success for us. A big goal achieved. Just happy to keep playing at the end of the day. It’s not so much about winning this or doing that, we just want to keep playing with this same group.”

A pivotal run that spanned the halftime break helped make sure that would happen. UNLV scored the final four points of the first half to get within 38-36 at the break. Boone had a steal and a layup to start the second half, then hit a 3–pointer on the next possession as part of an 8-2 run in just 1:09 that gave the Rebels the lead for good.

“The guys came out and had the start to the second half that we had to have, especially against a team like them,” coach Kevin Kruger said. “We had to get out to a good start in the second half, and guys clearly took that and put it on the floor, because what ended up being the difference in the game was kind of that being aggressive and assertive there, getting looks we wanted. And it kind of set the tone for us in how we did everything.”

UNLV built the lead to 57-46 with 12:05 remaining before Princeton rattled off seven straight points. Justin Webster stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer, and Whaley followed with a layup and a dunk to give the Rebels some breathing room.

A 15-point lead was again trimmed down to four twice in the final minute, but the Rebels made free throws and got enough stops down the stretch to hold off Princeton and Ivy League player of the year Caden Pierce, who had a game-high 22 points.

“I just couldn’t be happier for the guys and prouder of them for the fight in the second half,” said Kruger, whose team shot 68.2 percent from the field after halftime and overcame a rare quiet night from star point guard Dedan Thomas Jr.

Webster went 3-for-4 on 3-pointers and finished with 15 points. Shane Nowell had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists for the Rebels.

The status of Boone and Rodriguez is unclear as the Rebels move on. Boone tried to play through the injury against San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament, but came out of the game after just a minute.

Rodriguez is dealing with a family issue, according to a team spokesperson, and did not travel with the team.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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