SALT LAKE CITY — One giant step at a time, 7-foot-2-inch senior Luke Nevill is leading Utah closer to the Mountain West Conference title.
And after another step back, UNLV is destined to finish in the middle of the pack.
Nevill was a force in the middle with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots as the first-place Utes jumped ahead early and held on for a 70-60 victory over the Rebels on Wednesday night.
Utah (20-7, 11-2) owns a two-game lead over Brigham Young and New Mexico with just over a week to go in the regular season.
"We have a bull’s-eye on our head, and teams are going to come after us," Nevill said. "We’re still on top and winning games by staying tough."
UNLV (20-8, 8-6) slipped to fifth in the MWC standings with two games remaining, at home against Air Force on Wednesday and at San Diego State on March 7.
"We have to win out and get ready for the conference tournament," said senior Rene Rougeau, who led the Rebels with 19 points, four rebounds and four steals.
The Utes were coasting, leading by 15 points with 12 minutes to go, before Kendall Wallace hit a 3-pointer to ignite a UNLV uprising.
The Rebels slowly crawled back into it and closed the gap to 57-55 on Rougeau’s layup with 2:56 remaining, creating nervous tension in the crowd of 11,309 at the Huntsman Center.
But Utah’s Luka Drca countered with a 3-pointer at the 2:38 mark. After a Wink Adams turnover on UNLV’s possession, Drca made two free throws to extend the lead to seven with 2:12 left.
"I thought we were more aggressive defensively in the second half," Rebels coach Lon Kruger said. "We couldn’t quite get over the hump."
UNLV hit a bump in the road late in the first half. Rougeau’s layup tied the score at 20 with six minutes left, but Shaun Green made two 3-pointers as Utah used an 18-4 run to go up 38-24 at halftime.
Sophomore guard Tre’Von Willis had 14 points for the Rebels, but Adams was held to nine points on 3-for-12 shooting.
"I thought Rene and Tre, especially early, really battled and took the fight to them," Kruger said. "We need Wink to have a good game, there’s no question about that. He had a tough night."
Nevill helped the Utes to a 38-24 advantage in rebounds, and he altered several shots he was unable to block.
"That was the game plan all night to attack Nevill," said Rougeau, who shot 8-for-17. "In the first half, we didn’t play good at all.
"It hurts when we fight so hard to get back in the game and don’t get the win. It was definitely heartbreaking."
When Nevill caught the ball in the post, he often kicked it out to open shooters on the perimeter. Green scored 12 points, connecting on three 3-pointers. Utah shot 50 percent from the field in each half and made 8 of 14 3s.
Nevill had 11 points and nine rebounds in the first half while defended mostly by 6-7 Joe Darger. In the second half, with Darger mostly ineffective and saddled with four fouls, UNLV put 6-3 senior Mareceo Rutledge on Nevill for stretches.
Nevill made the only two field goals he attempted in the second half and finished 7-for-7 on free throws.
"Luke kept working, defended, blocked shots and rebounded," Utes coach Jim Boylen said. "I think I am more proud of him than anybody. We didn’t do a good job getting him the ball when he was open, and we are usually very good at that.
"I didn’t like that, but he kept playing and fighting through it. It was as big a game as he’s had for us because it wasn’t exactly going our way in that second half, especially his way."
Utah, 18-15 last season and 11-19 two years ago, is on the verge of a league title, and Nevill might be the league’s top player.
"We struggled in the past. We had some up-and-down seasons," Nevill said. "As a senior, it feels great to leave a winner."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.
UTAH — 70
UNLV — 60
KEY: The Rebels trimmed a 15-point deficit to two before the Utes’ Luka Drca made a 3-pointer with 2:38 left.
NEXT: Air Force at UNLV, 7 p.m. Wednesday, CBS-C (333), KWWN-AM (1100)