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Rebels dominate inside, return favor to Air Force with blowout win

Updated February 21, 2024 - 11:21 pm

There wasn’t going to be an Air Force 3-point shooting party. Or a Falcons clinic on how to properly run and score off a backdoor cut.

The UNLV men’s basketball team made sure of it Wednesday night.

In UNLV’s first meeting with Air Force since the Falcons’ 32-point domination last month, the Rebels controlled from the start and rolled to a 72-43 victory at Clune Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“The guys did a really good job of executing the things we talked about for a couple of days,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said in his postgame interview with Learfield Sports. “The coaches did a great job of putting examples out there the last two days of what we were going to see. Not a lot of miscues or mistakes tonight.”

Junior forward Rob Whaley Jr. led a balanced UNLV scoring attack with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.

Freshman guard Brooklyn Hicks added 12 points off the bench, and fifth-year forward Keylan Boone scored 11 points for the Rebels (15-10, 8-5 Mountain West), who led by as many as 30 points late in the second half.

“They did a really good job of spacing it out, getting into the paint, creating for a teammate to make plays,” Kruger said. “Just one of our better offensive nights.”

After Air Force (8-17, 1-12) torched UNLV 90-58 at the Thomas & Mack Center on Jan. 23 with a 50 percent (14 of 28) 3-point shooting effort, the Falcons made just 5 of 28 3-pointers Wednesday.

“To hold (Air Force) to 5 of 28 from 3, that was clearly the difference in the game, especially early so they couldn’t get anything going,” Kruger said.

UNLV imposed its will on Air Force by dominating inside.

The Rebels scored 40 points in the paint and held a 44-19 rebounding advantage. They shot 26 of 52 (50 percent) from the field.

“We did a good job of spacing them out and attacking on the offensive side,” Kruger said. “It makes that stuff easier to guard when you’re scoring and putting pressure on them and making them work defensively to get them a little fatigued.”

UNLV held a 13-point halftime advantage. The Rebels then made three of their first four shots in the second half.

A 14-4 run over six minutes gave UNLV a 54-32 lead with 11:04 to play after Whaley worked around Air Force’s defense to score on a layup.

The Rebels put the game out of reach with a 7-0 run and held Air Force scoreless for a 6:17 stretch. Luis Rodriguez capped off the run with a 3-pointer to put the Rebels ahead 65-36 with less than five minutes left.

All eight Rebels who scored contributed at least six points.

“They knew what was coming. They were ready for it when the ball went up,” Kruger said. “I was just really proud of them for bouncing back and having a night like tonight.”

Neither team created much separation early in the first half, with UNLV’s largest lead being five points in the first 10 minutes.

Justin Webster knocked down a transition 3-pointer with 10:55 left to put UNLV ahead 17-12.

After Air Force’s Beau Becker responded with a layup on the ensuing possession, the Falcons went scoreless for the next four minutes.

The Rebels pushed their lead with a 7-0 run. Jackie Johnson III knocked down an open jumper in the paint, and the Rebels led 24-14 with 6:40 remaining in the first half.

Air Force went cold again late in the first half, going scoreless during a 3:30 stretch.

Freshman Dedan Thomas Jr. scored on a layup and made a pair of free throws to help UNLV take a 13-point lead with under two minutes left in the first half.

UNLV led 37-24 at halftime with the help of strong play inside. It finished the first half with 24 points scored in the paint and 24 rebounds to Air Force’s eight.

The Rebels shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and limited Air Force to 4 of 18 shooting (22 percent) from 3. They outscored the Falcons 20-10 in the final 10:25 of the first half.

Air Force has lost seven straight games. Its win at UNLV remains its only Mountain West victory. Ethan Taylor led the Falcons with 17 points.

“It’s just seeing (Air Force’s offense), when you’ve never seen it before, you can only talk about it,” Kruger said. “We had a number of guys that looked at the records and with never seeing how hard they cut and how efficient they pass it, the message just didn’t seem to connect (in last month’s loss to Air Force).”

UNLV returns home to face No. 22 Colorado State at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“We needed to come out and have a great intent so that we can do what we needed to do and focus our attention as quickly as possible to Colorado State,” Kruger said. “That could only happen if we came out tonight and did a good job.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X.

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