weather icon Mostly Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

Fast start, fading finish: UNLV’s season in review

Updated March 10, 2023 - 5:25 pm

It’s possible UNLV’s season isn’t finished. Maybe this team did enough to earn a bid from the National Invitation Tournament and will get to play a few more games.

However, No. 7-seed UNLV’s 87-76 overtime loss to No. 2 Boise State in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament also may have been the final time this iteration of the Rebels took the court.

Coach Kevin Kruger’s second season was a roller-coaster ride. Integrating eight new scholarship players and an entirely new coaching staff, the Rebels achieved one of the best starts in recent memory and won Kruger his first conference tournament game.

But once again, UNLV failed to make the Mountain West tournament semifinals, which it hasn’t done since 2014.

“We wanted to end the season later, I don’t think there’s any harm in believing that and thinking that,” Kruger said. “But at the same time, I still think there’s a lot of great that can come from this year. A lot of good things have been established.”

Kruger’s second season had lots of question marks before the season even began. First-team all-Mountain West selection and UNLV’s 2021-22 leading scorer Bryce Hamilton and starters Royce Hamm Jr. and Donovan Williams all departed. Kruger also had to replace his entire backroom staff after all three of his assistant coaches were poached by Power Five schools during the offseason.

UNLV once again hit the transfer portal hard before this season, going after defensive-minded veterans. Kruger brought in fifth-year wing Elijah Parquet from Colorado and senior swingman Luis Rodriguez from Ole Miss. He also landed fifth-year guard EJ Harkless from Oklahoma.

Early on, it seemed like Kruger’s plan was going to work. UNLV stormed through its nonconference schedule to begin the season 10-0, it’s best start since the 1990-91 season. It beat Dayton, then ranked No. 21, at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the Rebels were one of the last seven undefeated teams in the country.

The Rebels began to unravel right as the Mountain West season began. Parquet, a crucial part of UNLV’s defense, injured his knee against Washington State Dec. 10, and UNLV lost its first game against San Francisco after the Dons hit a 3 with just six seconds remaining to steal the win.

Close defeats were a recurring theme of conference season for the Rebels. They lost their opening game against San Jose State in overtime, the beginning of a 1-6 start to Mountain West play that also included an overtime loss to Colorado State after a half-court game-tying shot by Isaiah Stevens at the end of regulation.

UNLV’s lone win came against New Mexico, also ranked No. 21 at the time, at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Parquet briefly returned, but was eventually shut down for the final few weeks of the season. Rodriguez also picked up some nagging injuries that prevented him from playing consistent minutes for the final month.

The injuries did provide a few players a chance to step into the spotlight. Sophomore Shane Nowell, a new arrival from Arizona, was largely unused during nonconference play, but emerged as a starter following Rodriguez and Parquet’s injuries. He hit the game-tying 3 to send the game against Boise State to overtime.

“I still think we’re better off than we were a year ago at this time,” Kruger said. “So we’ll just kind of take that as our starting point going into the spring.”

Harkless was the star of the Rebels’ conference season. The fifth-year guard finished second in scoring in the Mountain West, averaging 20.7 points during conference play. Harkless scored a career-best 35 points to guide UNLV past Air Force in the first round of the conference tournament and finished his lone season with the Rebels as a consensus second-team all-Mountain West selection.

“I appreciate my teammates for allowing me to be a leader on this team and Coach believing in me,” Harkless said. “I can’t thank them enough for that.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.