Updated January 19, 2022 - 6:04 pm
When UNLV guard Justin Webster saw his first shot fall Monday night, he knew he was hot.
“I felt like it was going to be one of those days,” he said. “I got a lot of rest the night before, walked in the gym and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a good day to shoot the basketball.’”
There were lots of positives in the Rebels’ 81-56 win at San Jose State. The defense held the Spartans to 36.7 percent shooting from the floor. Donovan Williams scored in double figures for a seventh consecutive game, and the team shot 50 percent from the field despite an off night from leading scorer Bryce Hamilton.
Heading into Thursday’s Mountain West game at Air Force, one of the most encouraging signs for the Rebels’ offense, though, came from Webster and fifth-year guard Michael Nuga. Coming off the bench, the duo scored 12 and 14 points respectively, giving the second unit a boost and keeping the pressure on San Jose State.
“They just came in and played with a ton of energy,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “The ball finds energy. It found both of them. They made a bunch of really good plays, especially in the first half, but it carried over into the second as well. When they bring that firepower, it makes the team that much better.”
In particular, the pair shined from 3-point range. Webster was an efficient 2 of 3 beyond the arc, while Nuga went 4 of 7. They accounted for six of the team’s 11 makes from downtown, as the Rebels (10-7, 2-2 Mountain West) shot a season-best 50 percent from 3-point range
“Coach can call on us at any point,” Webster said “We have to go in the game with confidence and knock down shots. … I feel like me and (Nuga) … we played confident, played aggressive.”
Monday night’s display featured the shooting Kruger’s offense has desperately needed.
Most teams key in on Hamilton when UNLV has the ball.
Without accurate shooting to space the floor, defenses have consistently packed the lane and cut off the senior’s driving lanes.
In four of its past six games, UNLV has shot below 29 percent from 3-point range. Even though several of Kruger’s transfers were brought in to improve the team’s outside shooting, until Monday night, the team’s 3-point ability has been inconsistent at best.
Only Williams and Royce Hamm Jr. are hitting the 3-ball above a 34-percent clip, and mainly due to efficient shot selection — Williams has taken 50 less threes than Hamilton, for example.
The Rebels’ struggles included Webster and Nuga. Entering Monday, Webster was hitting just 30.3 percent of his threes, below his 37.8 percent accuracy at Hawaii.
Similarly, Nuga’s 29.7 percent before the San Jose State game was more than eight percentage points below his 2020-21 season at Kent State.
UNLV will need Webster and Nuga to continue hitting their shots. Junior Josh Baker, another sharpshooter who still is trying to find his shot after his arrival from Hutchinson CC, missed practice Tuesday after getting hit in the eye against San Jose State and is considered day-to-day.
They will have plenty of chances to do just that as they enter a stretch of four games in eight days.
“Wins are hard to come by in this conference,” Webster said. “We’ll take wins regardless of who we’re playing … We lost to Fresno State in a tough one, but we bounced back and beat San Jose. It’s preparing us to go to Air Force and this tough stretch ahead.”
Who: UNLV (10-7, 2-2 Mountain West) vs. Air Force (8-7, 1-3)
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Clune Arena, Air Force Academy, Colo.
TV: Mountain West Network
Radio: KWWN (100.9 FM, 1100 AM)