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UNLV building confidence to take on strong Sunshine Slam field

Updated November 19, 2023 - 7:03 pm

UNLV’s past two games are much closer to the team coach Kevin Kruger believed he had entering the season.

The Rebels have rebounded from a disappointing loss to Southern in the season opener with double-digit wins against Stetson and Pepperdine.

“I think our confidence is growing little by little, even though we took a big step backward to start the season,” Kruger said. “Just continue to grow and get better. The nonconference games are to continue to learn each other, understand things and just figure out how we’re going to win ballgames.”

UNLV faces its first Power Five test of the young season against Florida State at 2:30 p.m. Monday in the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Rebels will then face either Colorado or Richmond on Tuesday.

“Just having this opportunity to be in a good tournament at the end of the day was something we wanted to do,” Kruger said.

UNLV is coming off a strong outing against Pepperdine. Five Rebels scored in double figures, led by fifth-year forward Kalib Boone’s 19 points on 90 percent shooting off the bench.

Kruger said Boone and sophomore forward Isaiah Cottrell, have complementary styles of play. Boone’s willingness to play in the paint and around the rim contrasts with Cottrell’s shooting, giving UNLV some flexibility in its post play.

“There aren’t a lot of people like (Boone) in college basketball right now where you can throw it to the post routinely, and that’s where they’re comfortable,” Kruger said. “And he is. That’s what he did at Oklahoma State, that’s what he’s done so far since he got here.”

UNLV also got another encouraging performance from freshman Dedan Thomas Jr. The former Liberty standout scored 17 points and had five assists. He has 14 assists across his past two games, but even more crucially, hasn’t committed a turnover since giving the ball away five times against Southern.

Kruger said the biggest emphasis going from the past season to the current one was taking care of the ball. UNLV’s poor ball security against Southern, which forced 13 turnovers, was key to the upset loss.

Kruger said Thomas’ distribution has helped the Rebels avoid what he calls “surprise shots,” or shots the team isn’t used to taking.

“If we can keep those to a minimum, share the ball, get the ball moving and take as many possible shots as we can at the rim,” Kruger said, “I think we’ve got the roster and we’ve got the talent level to make shots and give ourselves a chance to win every game.”

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

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