Updated November 28, 2023 - 10:11 pm
UNLV almost gave the game away.
With 25 seconds on the clock, Akron had a chance to complete an 18-point comeback. The only thing standing in the Zips’ way was the Rebels’ porous defense, which has struggled to get stops all season.
Nothing came open as Akron dribbled down the clock. Sixth-year guard Luis Rodriguez stonewalled Akron’s point guard, who gave the ball up to senior Mikal Dawson. He was similarly stopped in his tracks by fifth-year forward Jalen Hill.
Dawson threw up a prayer with four seconds on the clock and missed badly. UNLV freshman guard Dedan Thomas Jr. grabbed the rebound, and though he missed his free throw, Akron didn’t have enough time to get back down the court and get a shot off, securing the victory for coach Kevin Kruger’s squad.
“I just thought we had much better intent,” Kruger said. “Guys took to the plan.”
UNLV held on by the thinnest of margins Tuesday, beating Akron 72-70 at the Thomas &Mack Center. The Rebels snapped their two-game losing streak, as Rodriguez scored 13 while Thomas and fifth-year forward Kalib Boone each added 12 points. Junior guard Jackie Johnson III had 11 points off the bench.
The Rebels (3-3) shot a season-high 45 percent from 3. More importantly, they held Akron to 44 percent from 3, a decent number considering UNLV allowed Richmond and Southern to shoot better than 60 percent from behind the arc during losses this season. The Rebels also forced 18 turnovers that led to 16 points.
Senior forward Enrique Freeman led all scorers with 22 points on 52.9 percent shooting for the Zips (4-3), who’ve lost three straight.
“It feels great to get back into the win column,” Johnson said.
UNLV made a lineup change with Boone promoted into the starting lineup in place of sophomore forward Isaiah Cottrell.
A 3-pointer by Thomas less than four minutes into the game triggered a 12-0 UNLV run. Thomas’ 3 was one of seven made by UNLV in the first half, as the Rebels shot 58.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Kruger’s team made seven 3s in the entire game during a 82-65 loss to Richmond at the Sunshine Slam on Nov. 21. Rodriguez, fifth-year guard Justin Webster and Thomas each made two 3s in the first half.
But Akron fought back into the game near the 10-minute mark, and a pair of free throws from senior forward Sammy Hunter with 5:54 remaining in the half cut the UNLV lead to just two points.
Searching for a response, UNLV turned to Johnson. One of the few bright spots of the early season, the former Duquesne transfer scored nine points while adding two steals and an assist to help give the Rebels a 41-31 lead at halftime.
The Rebels came out even better in the second half, and a Cottrell layup with 13:33 remaining gave UNLV a 55-37 lead, its largest of the game.
But Kruger admitted the Rebels took their foot off the gas in the second half. Akron slowly clawed its way back into the game, trailing 65-56 with 6:12 remaining. The two teams combined for just four points — two apiece — for almost 3½ minutes of playing time before the Zips finally made their move.
Akron outscored UNLV 10-2 in the final 124 seconds. Hunter hit a 3, then stole a poor pass against the full-court press by Rodriguez for an easy layup. Freeman added a hook shot to cut the deficit to two points, and Thomas turned the ball over with 25 seconds remaining to give Akron a chance, setting up the final sequence.
“So proud of the guys,” Kruger said. “Just a big win.”