It was only two weeks ago that UNLV basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger questioned his team’s effort.
The Rebels responded with three inspired performances in a row, none more so than Wednesday night.
They stunned Utah State, the unanimous pick in the preseason to win the Mountain West, by winning 70-53 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV led by as many as 24 points.
UNLV (7-8, 2-0 MW) has won three straight games, and the Rebels held the Aggies (13-3, 2-1) to its lowest point total of the season. Utah State’s previous low was 64 points in a four-point loss to Brigham Young on Dec. 14.
“They’re probably the best offensive team we’ve played this year,” Otzelberger said. “To hold them to 32 percent from the floor and 2 for 19 from 3 is spectacular.”
Bryce Hamilton, who made 9 of 11 shots, led UNLV with 20 points. Amauri Hardy scored 14 points, and Mbacke Diong totaled 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Justin Bean led Utah State with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but Neemias Queta (knee) didn’t play.
Here are three takeaways from UNLV’s victory:
1. Making statement defensively
Guard Sam Merrill was the Mountain West Player of the Year last season, and most teams had trouble defending his terrific outside shooting.
UNLV held Merrill, who entered averaging 17.7 points while shooting 44.9 percent from 3-point range, to 10 points. The Rebels limited to Merrill to just two points in the second half, putting different defenders on him.
“The consistent theme was we wanted to stretch out his catches and make those tough,” Otzelberger said. “We wanted to make sure every time he had a ball screen that he has hands and pressure because when he has space, he’s an elite guard.”
That success was part of a larger defensive effort against the Aggies. The Rebels dove for loose balls, outrebounded Utah State 41-29 and made eight steals. Diong had four blocked shots.
2. Back in starting lineup
Otzelberger hadn’t started Hardy and Donnie Tillman recently, but both were on the floor for the tipoff.
Hardy didn’t start the two previous games after being in the opening lineup for the first 12 games. Tillman was out of the starting lineup the previous three games and missed a start Nov. 30 at Cincinnati.
Otzelberger has alluded to team rules and wanting to see more effort. Hardy and Tillman combined for 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Sitting players is something Otzelberger didn’t limit to those two.
“As a coach, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Hardy said. “He’s creating a culture. It’s his first year, and that’s something you want to do. If I was the coach, I would’ve done the same thing. You want players accountable. It definitely showed tonight.”
3. Some of old feeling
Fans still aren’t packing the Mack, and only about 3,000 fans showed up for this game. But thanks to the energetic play on the floor, the crowd was into the game.
They cheered when the Rebels made big shots, Diong blocked a shot or Hamilton threw down a fastbreak dunk.
One victory won’t fill the stands again, but this night was a reminder of how special the Thomas & Mack can be when the Rebels are playing well.
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