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Mbacke Diong brings defensive energy to UNLV

Mbacke Diong doesn’t usually come across as a look-at-me guy.

He takes a businesslike approach to practices and games and is soft-spoken in media interviews.

But sometimes Diong will block a shot, and his seldom-seen personality will emerge, whether he’s flexing his muscles after the block or channeling his inner Dikembe Mutombo with a finger wag.

“When you play hard, you’ve got to reward yourself,” Diong said with a little laugh. “The team feeds off that energy. When we have the energy high, we’re going to play harder and give a great effort.”

Diong, a 6-foot-11-inch junior forward who usually plays like a more traditional center, is a defensive force for the Rebels, who visit Wyoming on at 4 p.m. Saturday.

He is second in the Mountain West with 25 blocked shots, one behind Fresno State’s Nate Grimes, who went to Desert Pines High School. That puts Diong, often called “Mblocke,” roughly on pace to match the 41 blocked shots he finished with last season.

Coach T.J. Otzelberger called Diong’s defensive ability “elite” and a key reason for UNLV’s recent surge in which it had won four consecutive games before Wednesday’s 73-66 loss at Boise State.

But Diong, who was counted on to contribute almost entirely on defense his first two seasons, has become a more well-rounded player. His biggest statistical improvements have come in rebounding and scoring.

Diong’s rebounding average has jumped from 6.8 per game to 8.9, and his 14.4 percent of offensive rebounds grabbed is 39th nationally, according to Kenpom. His scoring average has risen from 6.9 points to 9.5, and Diong has produced three double-doubles. He had just one double-double before this season.

“Offensively, I just play off the guards,” Diong said. “They do the hard work. I just finish it.”

That usually means finishing at the rim with a dunk or a layup. Sometimes, though, Diong will find himself beyond the 3-point arc with the ball in his hands.

He has shown in practice he can knock down that shot, but Diong is 1 for 6 this season in games. He took two career 3-pointers before this season and missed both.

“If I’m open, I’ll take it,” Diong said smiling.

Diong comes off a subpar game, a loss at Boise State in which he had just six points and three rebounds. Even in that game, though, Diong still found a way to contribute. He blocked four shots, tying his season high that he reached in two other games.

Diong’s personal best is five blocks against Loyola Marymount in November 2018.

More blocked shots in Saturday’s game at Wyoming could mean more finger wags, modeling what Mutombo made famous in 18 seasons of the NBA.

Diong will be a central part of whatever the Rebels accomplish this season.

“Mbacke’s been tremendous — his effort, his energy, his communication, his length,” Otzelberger said. “He’s doing so much heavy lifting out there for our team.

“He’s a winner, a competitor. I can’t say enough positive things about how hard he’s playing for our team.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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