Updated January 21, 2021 - 7:43 pm
UNLV basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger’s main objective Thursday was to see his team lock in defensively against Benedictine Mesa.
The Rebels did that from the start and limited the NAIA Redhawks to 21.2 percent shooting in a 99-45 win at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I was happy to see our guys approach this opportunity,” Otzelberger said. “I thought our defense was really sound to start each half, and we had great focus.”
UNLV, which won its fourth straight, started the game on a 23-2 run, then had a 27-2 spurt to open the second half.
Mbacke Diong set a career high for the second time in three games with 22 points to lead five Rebels in double-figure scoring. He also had 11 rebounds.
David Jenkins had 20 points, Nick Blake 15 points and seven assists, and Moses Wood and Devin Tillis 11 points apiece for UNLV (5-6), which returns to Mountain West play at 6 p.m. Monday against Utah State at the T&M.
Jenkins said Diong’s presence in the six games since the Rebels returned from a 33-day absence has meant “everything.”
“He brings energy every single game,” Jenkins said. “Even though some of the early games he may not classify as having his best games, he was still bringing that energy, and we feed off that.”
Maurice Walton led Benedictine Mesa with 16 points.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
1. Hamilton sits with injury
UNLV was without leading scorer Bryce Hamilton, who tweaked his ankle late in Monday’s win over New Mexico.
“He’s questionable with his ankle, and it’s something we’ll re-evaluate each day,” Otzelberger said. “His health is our top priority, so making sure we get that right for him.”
2. Diong gets going early
Diong had a mismatch and exploited it, scoring nine of the Rebels’ first 11 points. He finished 10-for-17 from the field in 20 minutes.
“He’s earning more opportunities and earning that trust,” Otzelberger said. “That needs to be part of our offense a lot more than we’ve utilized it at this point — going to him in the post.”
Diong’s career high was 19 points before he scored 20 in Saturday’s win over New Mexico.
3. Strong from the start
UNLV has won its two games against NAIA foes by 57.5 points per game, but it started much stronger Thursday than it did Jan. 12 when Saint Katherine made six of its first nine shots before getting shut down.
“Coach just told us to have the same approach every game,” Jenkins said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the team we played tonight or someone like Utah State. Come with the same mentality, and we prep the same way for each game.”